Analysis

Will Bloomberg vs. Bernie End Up Defining the Democrats' Approach to Israel After 2020

Mayor Bloomberg may not end up winning many votes in the Democratic primary, but he is already slated to be biggest political spender in the 2020 race and will undoubtedly change the debate

Michael Bloomberg eating lunch with Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott, Jr. after adding his name to the state's Democratic primary ballot, November 12, 2019.
Chris Aluka Berry / Reuters

The Democratic presidential primaries were just upended by two late entries just three months ahead of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

Former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, 63, and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, 77, both made moves toward entering the race — developments that may not dramatically change the outcome, even if Patrick is a wildcard. But they are certain to change the debate, especially when it comes to Israel.

Currently, three of the leading four Democratic candidates have moved in the direction of the progressive wing, rebuking the establishment by saying they would consider conditioning U.S. aid to Israel on the Israeli government adopting a less hawkish position on the Palestinians.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has been leading the charge in separating criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and criticism of Israel, telling the J Street conference in October: “It is not anti-Semitism to say that the Netanyahu government has been racist.”

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg have joined Sanders in his criticism of Netanyahu, with both staking out a position seemingly left of the Democratic mainstream on Israel, though Buttigieg is much closer to the center — a position that may be similar to Patrick’s.

For the first time, a Monmouth University poll shows Buttigieg leading in the Iowa caucuses — with 22 percent of the vote. Biden, Warren and Sanders come in at 19 percent, 18 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

Former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick talking to reporters in Concord, New Hampshire, November 14, 2019.
Joseph Prezioso / AFP

The fact that a 37-year-old mayor is leading in Iowa underscores why Patrick and Bloomberg want to enter the race, as well as the impact they may have as heavyweights in American politics.

New Hampshire is also wide open as Biden, Warren and Sanders remain in a virtual tie, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polling data. The apparent opening in the Democratic field also leaves the party open to new leadership and voices regarding the party’s approach to Israel.

Both Patrick and Bloomberg are likely to have a larger impact on the race than other moderate Democrats so far, as each brings unique advantages. Bloomberg sits on top of a $52 billion fortune and can reactivate the political army that helped get him elected in New York City three times. Bloomberg, as of Friday, has already begun a digital anti-Trump ad campaign, which is reportedly going to be over $100 million - making him the largest single campaign spender this cycle. 

The New Hampshire connection

Patrick, meanwhile, brings strong name recognition to New Hampshire, having governed for eight years in Massachusetts, which shares the same media market. Patrick is also a close ally of former President Barack Obama and may be better poised to energize Obama supporters with his life story, while running as a D.C. outsider.

Patrick, who was a popular two-term governor from 2007 to 2015, reveled in Massachusetts’ deep business ties to Israel in 2014 while leading a mission of 120 business leaders to Jerusalem. In 2012, according to the New England-Israel Business Council, more than 200 Israeli-founded businesses were based in Massachusetts, generating some $6 billion in revenue.

Under Patrick, Massachusetts became a model for economic and cultural relations between a state government and Israel, as Boston’s high-tech center deepened its ties with Israeli high-tech. As a result, Patrick boasted in 2014 that Israel and Massachusetts were “very compatible.” While in Israel, Patrick announced agreements between Boston-area universities, from MIT to Brandeis, establishing partnerships with Israeli schools. MIT and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev even established a fund to let faculty and scientists work together on new research.

Patrick, along with Trump-ally Robert Kraft (another winner of the Genesis Prize), chairs the organization of Our Generation Speaks, a non-profit which brings together Israeli and Palestinian youth through entrepreneurship.

While Patrick’s record as governor shows his deep economic commitment to Israel, his position on the Donald Trump-Benjamin Netanyahu alliance is unknown and may be closer to that of Warren — his longtime political ally in liberal Massachusetts.

But Bloomberg, a former Republican, is known as a strong centrist voice on Israel, similar to party leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer — who both have decades-long pro-Israel ties and have been strong supporters of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

In February 2013, then-Mayor Bloomberg said he “couldn’t disagree more violently” with the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, but he also noted his support for freedom of speech. He lambasted a campaign to shutter a BDS forum featuring BDS founder Omar Barghouti and a University of California philosophy professor, Judith Butler, at Brooklyn College.

“If you want to promote views that you find abhorrent, this is exactly the way to do it,” he said. “What the protesters have done is given a lot of attention to the very idea they keep saying they don’t want people to talk about. They just don’t think before they open their mouths. If they just shut up, it would have gone away.”

Bloomberg joins Sanders, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet and billionaire Tom Steyer as the fourth Jewish Democrat to enter the race. (Neither Bennet nor Steyer identify as Jewish, although the former was born to a Jewish mother and the latter to a Jewish father.) Bloomberg’s father was a longtime president of the family’s synagogue in Massachusetts, and his mother was a life member of the women’s Zionist organization Hadassah. Bloomberg later donated a wing of Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem in his mother’s name.

'Standing with us'

Bloomberg has deep ties to Israel, having visited multiple times, including to receive the first-ever Genesis Prize in March 2014 and again in July 2014 — just hours after the Federal Aviation Administration temporarily banned U.S. airlines from flying to Ben-Gurion Airport during that summer’s Gaza war. Bloomberg later wrote an op-ed explaining why he felt it was so important to take that flight and show solidarity with Israel during the fighting.

In the piece for his news agency, Bloomberg wrote that after meeting with Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders, he “thanked them for standing with us after the Sept. 11 attacks and offered my strong support for their actions in response to the attacks by Hamas.”

Both Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden offered a similar sentiment in condemning this week’s Gaza rocket attacks on Israel; both wrote on Twitter that Israel “has a right to defend itself.” As the cease-fire went into effect between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad on Thursday, neither Warren nor Sanders had released a statement on the round of violence; they both tweeted after the cease-fire went into effect.

Warren tweeted, “I welcome the Gaza ceasefire. Dozens were killed in Gaza, and hundreds of rockets fired at Israel. We must work to end rocket attacks on Israel, eliminate the Gaza blockade, and solve the humanitarian crisis so that all Israelis and Palestinians live in security and freedom.”

Sanders added, “Israelis should not have to live in fear of rocket fire. Palestinians should not have to live under occupation and blockade. The U.S. must lead the effort to end the crisis in Gaza and the persistent violence that threatens everyone.”

Just how much the Democrats’ progressive wing, led by congresswomen like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar (all three have endorsed Sanders), are moving the party toward a more critical stance on Israel is open for debate. It’s also not clear to what degree Israel is a wedge issue in the primaries, though Trump’s focus on the country has certainly brought it to the front and center in American politics.

While all three voted against an anti-BDS measure in July, the nonbinding resolution still passed 398-17. A Democratic presidential candidate and close Sanders ally, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, voted in favor of the resolution.

In February, the Senate also passed an anti-BDS bill with 25 of the 47 Democrats in the chamber voting in favor. Sanders and Warren both voted against but said this was a First Amendment issue, not an expression of support for BDS.

Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar was the only presidential contender in the Senate to vote in favor of the bill, but so far she has had a minimal impact on the Democratic debate on U.S.-Israel relations.

Bloomberg, who has so far only filed paperwork to run in the Alabama and Arkansas primaries, isn’t polling well; a Morning Consult survey has found that 25 percent of likely primary voters view him unfavorably — the highest unfavorable rating in the field.

Sanders was quick to pounce on Bloomberg, tweeting, “Sorry, you ain’t going to buy this election.” A Sanders versus Bloomberg rivalry is likely to develop if Bloomberg goes all in and blitzes the early states with massive ad buys. Similarly, Patrick and Warren — who are close political allies in Massachusetts — may be pitted against each other, vying for the same donor base. However, when it comes to Israel, Bloomberg versus Sanders will epitomize the battle over the future of the Democratic Party and its stance on Israel.