The Democratic presidential front-runner’s attacks on America’s pro-Israel lobby are an even bigger problem than they might seem.
In the last week, the focus on Senator Bernie Sanders’s past views on Communist Cuba has intensified. Sanders’s continued refusal to disavow his past rationalizations of the Castro regime’s rule has outraged the Cuban-American community and fueled criticism that his brand of Democratic socialism recalls the pro-Soviet Western Left of his formative Cold War years.
Yet for all of the justified anger at Sanders’s stance on Cuba, the debate about U.S. policy toward the former Soviet satellite state is rooted more in the past than in our present foreign-policy challenges. An even more accurate indicator of the way Sanders would shift U.S. policy as president came when he publicly spurned the idea of speaking at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). By denouncing AIPAC for what he described as “bigotry” and “denial of Palestinian rights,” Sanders signaled that he was committed to undermining the pro-Israel lobby whose main goal is to maintain bipartisan support for the Jewish state.
Sanders’s stand is both hypocritical and inaccurate, since AIPAC, which functions as an umbrella group of American pro-Israel organizations, remains publicly committed to a two-state solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and is just as likely to hear from liberal speakers at its conferences as from conservatives. In the past, Sanders has had no compunction about speaking at conferences held by the left-wing J Street group, where some speakers have espoused an anti-Zionism that denies Jewish rights. Nor has he stayed away from extremist groups: Last year, he spoke at the Islamic Society of North America, whose leaders have advocated the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews and homosexuals.
Sanders’s repudiation of a group whose conferences always boast leading Democrats and Republicans among their speakers and attendees illustrates his willingness to antagonize supporters of Israel. And that, in turn, is a worrisome indicator of what a Sanders administration’s Middle East policy would look like, and of the kinds of people who would shape it.
Though he has, for the first time in his decades-long political career, begun talking about his “pride” in being Jewish, Sanders seems to be deploying his heritage primarily as a shield against criticisms of his hostility toward Israel and his campaign’s embrace of leading anti-Semites. Representatives Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D., Mich.) and former Women’s March leader Linda Sarsour are just the most notable Sanders-campaign surrogates to have spread anti-Semitic calumnies about supporters of Israel and touted the BDS movement, whose rhetoric resounds with the traditional tropes of Jew-hatred.
Sanders proclaims himself a champion of even-handed policies toward Israel and the Palestinians. But his effort to damn AIPAC as a hate group is aimed not so much at changing the conversation about the Middle East as at effectively silencing pro-Israel voices in both parties. And that suggests a Sanders presidency would be disastrous for Israel and the wide Middle East.
The key to understanding Sanders’s views on foreign policy is that he has always opposed the projection of U.S. power and influence while supporting revolutionary groups that pose as defenders of the victims of U.S. imperialism. Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, that meant sympathy for any foreign regime that opposed American efforts to contain the Soviet Union. Now, it means an end to U.S. efforts to contain Islamist radicals and Iran.
Instead of actively opposing Islamist terror groups such as Hamas, Sanders has called for an end to the international blockade of Hamas-governed Gaza, and for diverting military aid from Israel to that enclave. He is also the most likely of the 2020 Democratic contenders to go further than reinstating Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, actively seeking to appease Tehran even though Trump’s sanctions have at least made the regime’s efforts to achieve regional hegemony via its terrorist proxies more difficult.
Because the consequences of such a shift on the security of our Arab allies and Israel would be catastrophic, Sanders’s AIPAC comments are not merely a squabble about the extent of the pro-Israel lobby’s influence in the U.S. They are an indicator of the grave stakes of the Democratic primaries and, if he wins the party’s nomination, the general election. He must not be allowed to take the White House.