The word among liberal American Jews seems to be that of the remaining presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton will be the “best” U.S. president for Israel. That is, the best suited to defend Israel’s interests in the long term.
At least, that’s what I keep hearing, even from rabid Bernie Sanders followers. Clinton’s experienced, the argument goes; she knows Benjamin Netanyahu so well she can probably tell you all his poker tells - he won't be able to fool her; she’s a two-state believer (unlike those GOP kooks) but most of all, she’s an unreserved defender of Israel, first and foremost.
Her support for Israel is so undisputed that even the recently-released private emails where her aides advised her to be more hostile to Israel couldn’t shake her pro-Israel credentials.
This, of course, is the message that the Clinton campaign wishes to convey to Israel supporters and rich Jewish donors: that after nearly eight years of deterioration in U.S.-Israel relations, a Clinton White House will “reaffirm the unbreakable bonds of friendship and unity between the two nations. Netanyahu, a bitter rival of the Obama administration, will be invited to the White House on Clinton’s “first month in office,” she promises - implying that Hillary will be a better friend to Israel than Obama.
Allow me to disagree. Hillary Clinton as president will probably not be good for Israel’s long-term interests, despite her unwavering support for Israel – in fact, precisely because of it.
For nearly 20 years, Clinton has never allowed herself to be truly critical of Israel, despite Israel’s descent into an increasingly undemocratic ethnocracy. In that, she has enabled and even encouraged self-destructive behaviors and elements that have effectively killed the two-state solution, and are now threatening Israel’s security and democracy.
To put it simply, she is too good of a friend, which makes her not a friend at all.
The great legitimizer
In July 2014, as the latest war between Israel and Hamas was raging in Gaza, Clinton appeared as a guest on the Daily Show. After discussing her presidential aspirations and the heft of her book "Hard Choices," Jon Stewart (still the host then) turned the conversation to Gaza.
“Can we at least agree that the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is overwhelming and that the world must do more for the people who are trapped by this conflict?” asked Stewart . But Clinton was having none of that. Palestinians, she said, are “trapped by their leadership.” As people around the world and within Israel were shocked by Israel’s disproportionate show of force in Gaza, Clinton saw no reason to criticize Israel. The blame, she insisted, lay solely with Hamas.
Then in an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg shortly after her Daily Show appearance, Clinton again rushed to Israel’s defense, backing Israel’s continued military presence in the West Bank, and even blamed anti-Semitism as an “important motivating factor” behind criticisms of Israel.
Sound familiar? Much the same had been said by Benjamin Netanyahu and other right-wing Israeli politicians, to deflect criticisms leveled at their policies.
In a telling piece published in Haaretz, Peter Beinart outlined Clinton’s transformation from a pro-Palestinian First Lady to a pandering politician so eager to please hawkish Jewish donors that she often finds herself defending policies that are globally considered indefensible, ignores the plight of Palestinians, and frequently adopts right-wing talking points as her own. These days, she sounds less like Obama when it comes to Israel and more like Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. (Which makes sense, of course, considering that these three share the same foreign policy advisers).
Ever since she first ran for office in 2000, Clinton has maintained an adamantly uncritical line regarding Israel. By focusing exclusively on the blame of Palestinians, effectively absolving Israel of any wrongdoing, she has inadvertently aligned herself with the camp that says that all is good, and there is no reason to criticize Israel: Israel’s right. Politicians like Clinton, who automatically jump to Israel’s defense and cry anti-Semitism whenever Israel’s conduct is portrayed negatively, are a great legitimizing tool for the right-wing’s anti-democratic policies.
Clinton is widely seen as “better” for Israel, because she never challenges it, but Israel, let’s face it, needs to be challenged. In the past few years, it has been barreling down toward a de facto apartheid state, with little to no American resistance. It needs a US president who can be far more critical than Clinton seems likely to ever allow herself to be.
Enter Bernie Sanders.
When it comes to Israel, Bernie Sanders is a somewhat unknown commodity. The Vermont senator has been avoiding questions about Israel like the plague, and, despite volunteering in a kibbutz in the 1960s, has rarely spoken about that experience. The little he has said, though, has some pro-Israel people worried.
In 1988, while still mayor of Burlington, he said that “the sight of Israeli soldiers breaking the arms and legs of Arabs is reprehensible.” In an interview with Vox last year, he suggested cutting American military aid to Israel in the long term, in order to provide more economic aid to other peoples in the region (an idea so radical, even Rand Paul doesn’t support it anymore.)
Sanders seems to have a slightly more nuanced view of Israel-Palestine. Like Clinton, he supported and defended Israel during the 2014 Gazan war, but also accused it of “over-reacting” and of bombing UN facilities. His platform calls Israeli attacks on Gaza “disproportionate,” and its “widespread killing of civilians” as “completely unacceptable.” It’s not much, but it’s something.
Sanders does have a significant advantage, though: unlike Clinton, he is not beholden to the same hawkish pro-Israel lobby groups that would prevent president Clinton from making any substantive moves. He doesn’t hail from the same circles, and is not dependent on the pro-Israel lobby either financially or politically.
It's true, based on his decidedly pro-Israeli record and general aversion to talking about Israel, that Sanders seems unlikely to lead a profound change in U.S.-Israeli relations. And it’s hard to imagine a president Sanders, with his strong focus on domestic economic matters, being much more radical when it comes to Israel than Obama.
However, given Clinton’s extreme aversion to criticizing Israel, President Bernie - inexperienced as he may be - seems at least more likely to be critical toward Israel than President Hillary. And Israel desperately needs a critical U.S. administration.