In America, Politicians Pay for Bucking NetanyahuThe Israeli prime minister’s hard-line, expansionist policies put Bernie Sanders’ “Jewishness” to the test.The Israeli prime minister’s hard-line, expansionist policies put Bernie Sanders' "Jewishness" to the test.
As he campaigns in New York, Bernie Sanders is learning what many Jews know—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes it tough for a Jew to be a Zionist.
A friend gave me that line about the prime minister making it difficult for a Jew to be a Zionist. Maybe the Vermont senator knew it already. But Sanders, as a Jew, is being forcibly reminded in his battle against Hillary Clinton in the New York presidential primary, where every word is magnified and every nuance scorned.
Jews compose almost 20 percent of the New York City electorate. And because they relish the act of voting, they are a force in politics beyond their number. Ostensibly, they should be Sanders’ people. He lived in Brooklyn for the first 18 years of his life. He spent a year in Israel. He had family members in Europe who were destroyed in the Holocaust.
But Sanders is a secular Jew, not an observant one, and he does not immerse himself in the Jewish community. He’s Jewish, but, some say, maybe not Jewish enough.
The New York polls reflect that feeling, showing him behind Clinton, the former secretary of state who represented New York in the Senate and won two statewide elections in the process. A Sienna Institute Research poll shows her leading Sanders 52 percent to 42 percent, and 60 percent to 38 percent among Jews.
Sanders is up against a powerful voice. Netanyahu has become a force in trying to get American Jews to support his policy of expanding settlements in Israel and taking an increasingly harsh line against Palestinians. He is a great ally of Republicans and a dedicated foe of any American president supporting an acceptable Israel agreement with the Palestinians, going back to the first President Bush and most especially singling out President Barack Obama.
His political team in Israel and in the United States has helped create a network of conservative Jews, mostly on the Republican side, which supports Netanyahu’s Likud government and its policy of expanding Jewish settlements into land the Palestinians claim and denying political rights to Palestinians, even those who are citizens of Israel. This is the standard by which Netanyahu supporters judge American Jews and their attitudes toward Israel. Going against that means you not are really a Zionist—a supporter of Israel as a Jewish state.
Sanders got hit with the issue in his meeting with the New York Daily News editorial board and was a bit muddy in his answers.
Asked about negotiations with the Palestinians, he said, “I lived in Israel. I have family in Israel. I believe 100 percent not only in Israel’s right to exist, a right to exist in peace and security without having to face terrorist attacks. But from the United States’ point of view, I think, long-term, we cannot ignore the reality that you have large numbers of Palestinians who are suffering now poverty rates off the charts, unemployment off the charts, Gaza remaining a destroyed area. … [T]here are good people on both sides, and Israel … cannot just simply expand when it wants to expand with more settlements. So I think the United States has got to help work with the Palestinian people as well. I think that is the path toward peace. … [I]f the expansion [of settlements] was illegal, moving into territory that was not their territory, I think withdrawal from those territories is appropriate.”
That all makes sense to Zionists like me, who can’t stand Netanyahu’s persona or his expansionist policies. But Sanders was being interviewed in New York, where the slightest slip means trouble.
And slip he did. Talking of the number of Palestinians killed when the Israelis assaulted Gaza to stop terrorist attacks on Israel, he said, “My recollection is over 10,000 innocent people were killed in Gaza. Does that sound right? … My understanding is a whole lot of apartment houses were leveled. Hospitals, I think, were bombed. So yeah, I do believe and I don’t think I am alone in believing Israel’s force was more indiscriminate than it should have been.”
As he later admitted, Sanders got the numbers wrong. The Intercept wrote that a week after the conclusion of the fighting, the U.N. reported that 2,131 Palestinians had been killed in the Israeli bombardment, almost 1,500 of them civilians, including 501 children and 257 women.
Sanders may have erred in the numbers but not the message. The deaths of the women and children were indiscriminate and inhumane.
But in his reply, Sanders didn’t seem to be quite on top of details. Wall Street, big banks and income inequality are at the heart of his campaign, and foreign affairs, even something as crucial in New York politics as Israel, seemed to be unfamiliar territory, or at least an area he hadn’t thought about enough.
That isn’t the case for the always-prepared Clinton, who has dealt with Israel as secretary of state, senator and wife of President Bill Clinton, who labored hard to bring Israelis and Palestinians together and succeeded better than other presidents.
“I will continue to ensure that Israel has a qualitative military edge,” she told the Daily News editorial board, “that I will continue, as I did as senator, as I did as secretary of state, to do anything and everything for their security; that I will continue to speak out against the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions, which seeks to punish Israel economically) movement, which I think is one-sided, discriminatory and unfair; that I will be a president who always tries to support Israel in the United Nations or any other international tribunal, as I have in the past.”
Sanders hasn’t spoken out against the boycott movement. Nor has he pledged to ensure Israel’s military edge. And like J Street, a liberal Jewish organization that favors a two-state solution, he expressed sympathy for innocent Palestinian victims.
That no doubt doomed him with the Netanyahu set. But Clinton, if she wins the nomination and the presidency, will also come up against Netanyahu’s no-compromise insistence on more settlements and more limitations on Palestinian power. And with his perpetual campaigning for support among right-wing Republicans, he probably won’t give up American politics.
In the end, an American president will have to—as Obama has done—remind Netanyahu that he is prime minister of Israel, and that he can’t dictate American policies.Wait, before you go…
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