Bernie Sanders Is Smart to Keep His Mouth Shut About Israel

The U.S. presidential candidate has the Democratic progressive vote in his pocket and is wise not to reveal that, on the Middle East, he stands more to the right than his fans would like him to.

Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, speaks during a campaign event in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, U.S., on Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016.
Bloomberg

Don’t get me wrong. There’s probably nothing I’d rather hear now than Bernie Sanders, the first Jew to be a serious contender for the presidency, discuss his views on U.S. policy toward Israel at a time when the relationship between their leaders is colder than a frosty February New Hampshire evening.

I’d especially love to hear what he thinks of Netanyahu’s latest demonstration of chutzpah - stating that if Israel isn’t satisfied by the new American military aid proposal, he’ll simply put off signing it - and what kind of a deal Bibi should expect from a President Sanders. 

Unfortunately, there is no reason to expect that Sanders is going to break his silence when it comes to Israel - and the Middle East as a whole - anytime soon. Not when keeping quiet has worked extremely well for him so far. 

Throughout his political career, and certainly over the course of his presidential campaign, Sanders has always been focused like a laser beam on his primary issues - economic injustice as embodied by the robber-baron billionaires and a need for a “revolution,” themes he’s been sounding since he first ran for mayor of Burlington, Vermont.  

On the national stage, Sanders has never claimed to be a big foreign policy maven and there’s never really been a political upside among his constituency in stressing his Jewishness (not that he needs to with his Brooklyn accent and “New York values” or personal connection to Israel). There is no significant Jewish or evangelical pro-Israel constituency to appeal to in Vermont, and the rugged New England individualist ethos New Hampshire, the next primary state, embodies a wide streak of isolationism. Those who have scoured his congressional record have found almost no evidence of statements about Israel on the floor of the Senate or the House of Representatives. 

If, in the past, Sanders referred to his time volunteering on a kibbutz, it was to elaborate on the formation of his socialist ideas, not to demonstrate any personal attachment to the Jewish state. 

The fact that he was loathe to disclose the name of the kibbutz where he volunteered was merely part of a package - the Jewish state has never been something Sanders visibly enjoys discussing. In describing the reaction to Haaretz’s revelation last week of the kibbutz’s name, location and Stalinist history, one commentator noted that “finding the kibbutz he lived in 50 years ago” has brought him “nothing but trouble.”

Bernie Sanders' 1990 interview to Haaretz's Yossi Mellman
Haaretz Archive

It’s not that he doesn’t know how to talk at length about Israel. To watch him do so, just take a trip back to 1988, when he discussed it at length as part of his support for then-presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. 

In this appearance he called “the sight of Israeli soldiers breaking the arms and legs of Arabs” during the first intifada “reprehensible.” He added that “the idea of Israel closing down towns and sealing them off is unacceptable” and said that the United States, which is “pouring billions of dollars into arms and into other types of aid in the Middle East,” should use its clout to “demand that these countries sit down and talk about a reasonable settlement.” 

His bottom line: “I believe in two simple principles. Number one, Israel has a right to exist in peace and security. The Palestinians are entitled to a state of their own with full political and economic power. That's the broad view that I hold and I will do everything that I can to make that happen.”

At the time, supporting a Palestinian state was a controversially far-left position to take - Jackson’s position in favor of one put him at odds with the then-establishment candidate Al Gore.

What appears to have been the turning point in the silencing of Sanders when it comes to Israel was the famously tempestuous town meeting in Cabot, Vermont during the 2014 Gaza war.

When laying out his position there, he tried to hit the usual balance of finding fault on both sides. After saying that Israel’s extensive bombing of UN institutions in Gaza was “terribly, terribly wrong” he countered that condemnation by pointing out, “On the other hand – and there is another hand – you have a situation where Hamas is sending missiles into Israel – a fact – and you know where some of those missiles are coming from. They’re coming from populated areas; that’s a fact. Hamas is using money that came into Gaza for construction purposes – and God knows they need roads and all the things that they need – and used some of that money to build these very sophisticated tunnels into Israel for military purposes.”

That’s when all hell broke loose. Sanders famously told anti-Israel hecklers to “shut up” and indicated he might call in police to calm things down. He then tried to pivot the conversation from Hamas to ISIS, sparking even more loud disdain and angry interruptions.  “I have been working on it for the last 50 years. I’m sorry, I don’t have the magic answer. This is a very depressing and difficult issue.” he said. “This has gone on for 60 bloody years, year after year If you’re asking me if I have the magical solution, I don’t, and you know what, I doubt very much that you do.”

It was a red flag that the progressive base to whom Sanders has broad appeal in his economic message had moved left of him when it came to Israel. 

And so, when pushed during press interviews to address Israel, he has dutifully hit his talking points, which are fairly indistinguishable from Clinton’s or Obama’s, and impressively consistent over more than two decades: 1. It’s depressing. 2. We need a two-state solution. 3. I’m not crazy about the leadership on either side. 4. The United States needs to use its clout to push for peace. 

And then he moves on as quickly as possible without laying out in detail what he would do as president to change the situation, and how that would be different from moves by any of his rivals.  

Sanders and his campaign strategists have clearly made a decision that it is a lose-lose proposition for him to do so. Sanders has no desire to try to compete with Hillary Clinton for the pro-Israel Democratic financial support. There’s no need to attack her since there are plenty of others doing the work for him- from leftist criticism for being too cozy with pro-Israeli supporters like Haim Saban, and from the right for her association with Obama’s policies and the often kooky and disturbing advice of her advisors, as revealed in the recent court-ordered email dumps

The one time Sanders took the lead on an Israel-related matter was a year ago, when he was the first member of Congress to declare that he would be deliberately absent from Netanyahu's controversial speech to a joint session of Congress laying out his case against the Iran deal. But that was about the Israeli prime minister’s disrespect for the White House, not a policy statement.

Overall, the Sanders camp has decided that silence is golden at a time when he has much of the Democratic progressive wing in his pocket. There is no reason for him, they figure, to risk alienating the crowds of enthusiastic progressive supporters who are “Feeling the Bern” by reminding them of an issue on which it seems he is much closer to the “establishment” than they are - and would probably like him to be.