Democratic Candidates Slam Trump's Plan, as pro-Israel Democrats Slam Sanders

What might have been a moment of unity regarding U.S. policy towards Israel came precisely as the first major shot was fired by the Democratic Majority for Israel at Bernie Sanders

Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer
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Bernie Sanders on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 29, 2020.
Bernie Sanders on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 29, 2020.Credit: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer

With the first U.S. presidential primaries around the corner, the leading Democratic presidential candidates, using similar language, have all slammed the Trump peace plan unveiled Tuesday as a cynical charade that would make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict worse, not better.

But what might have been a moment of unity regarding U.S. policy towards Israel came precisely as the first major shot was fired by the so-called “establishment” wing of the party at Bernie Sanders, who is surging in the polls in both Iowa and New Hampshire. And the group leading that charge is the Democratic Majority for Israel, which caused a stir Wednesday by airing the first set of $700 thousand worth of television ads in Iowa, attacking the Jewish senator from Vermont by name, sowing doubts about his ability to defeat Trump in the November general election, and featuring Iowa voters who questioned whether the 78-year-old was physically up to the task of the presidency following his heart attack, and expressed doubts that a self-described socialist was electable.

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The DMFI, headed by veteran pollster and strategy Mark Mellman, who, until recently, served as an adviser to Kahol Lavan, was formed last spring to “strengthen the pro-Israel tradition of the Democratic Party.” Its creation was a symptom of concern about the increasing drift of the Democratic Party regarding Israel, in an effort to preserve bipartisan support of the Jewish state.

Mellman has been outspoken about Sanders in the past, declaring in October that it was “deeply disturbing to find a candidate who claims to be ‘100% pro-Israel,’” who is now “surrounding himself with a number of surrogates and endorsers who hate Israel, support BDS and have repeatedly made anti-Semitic statements,” in particular, Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour, who Mellman called a “noted anti-Semite.”

Mellman said this week that his group’s anti-Sanders effort in Iowa stems from two concerns. “One is that it is fundamental to beat Donald Trump and [stopping Sanders] is fundamental to achieving that goal. Second is that Sanders is in a uniquely bad place concerning the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

One of the Democratic Majority for Israel's ads slamming Sanders

Despite the organization’s efforts, most of the Democratic candidates have not hesitated to criticize Israeli policies in forceful language, and several of the party’s frontrunners have been receptive to activists pushing them to link U.S. military aid to Israel to ending the occupation and promoting Palestinian rights.

It is true that Sanders used the strongest language of any of the candidates in his criticism of the Trump plan, calling it “unacceptable,” since “any acceptable peace deal must be consistent with international law and multiple UN resolutions. It must end the Israeli occupation and enable Palestinian self-determination in an independent state of their own alongside a secure Israel.

“Trump’s so-called ‘peace deal’ doesn’t come close, and will only perpetuate the conflict,” Sanders charged.

Using more measured language with no mention of the occupation, international law, or the United Nations, former Vice President Joe Biden characterized the Trump plan as “a political stunt that could spark unilateral moves to annex territory and set back peace even more.”

Biden tweeted that he has “spent a lifetime working to advance the security & survival of a Jewish and democratic Israel. This is not the way.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg focused on the immediate prospect of annexation, with Warren promising to “reverse” U.S. policy should the Trump White House approve of the expected annexation of parts of the West Bank.

“Trump’s ‘peace plan’ is a rubber stamp for annexation and offers no chance for a real Palestinian state,” Warren tweeted. “Releasing a plan without negotiating with Palestinians isn’t diplomacy, it’s a sham. I will oppose unilateral annexation in any form – and reverse any policy that supports it.”

Like Warren, Buttigieg focused on the dangers of the possibility of immediate annexation of the Jordan Valley. “Peace requires both parties at the table. Not a political green light to the leader of one for unilateral annexation,” he tweeted.

Only former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg put anything resembling a positive spin on the plan in his reaction, saying that “a negotiated two-state solution is crucial to Israel’s and the Palestinian’s security well-being and it is good that President Trump’s plan affirms that.” Like the other candidates, however, he too, criticized the fact that the plan was developed without any Palestinian “buy-in” and warned that “it is critical that neither side take any unilateral steps that could trigger instability and violence.”

After news of the Democratic Majority for Israel ads dovetailed with the Trump announcement Tuesday, Sanders supporters leapt to the candidate’s defense.

James Zogby, founder of the Arab-American Institute, tweeted that the backers of DMFI “want to attack @BernieSanders cuz he’s balanced on Israel/Palestine, but can’t cuz Dems don’t support their view. So they use “too old, heart attack, socialist” canards. “

The anti-occupation group IfNotNow charged that Mellman’s organization was guilty of “using Sanders as a rhetorical prop for making the case for unquestioning support for Israel.”

Just as the DMFI ads made no direct reference to Israel, neither did Sanders’ response.

In a video reacting to the negative ads, Sanders called his opponents members of the “political establishment” and “big money interests” because “the billionaire class is getting nervous.” In the future, he promised, he would support robust campaign reform “so that billionaires will not be able to buy elections as they are trying to do right now” with their “endless amounts of money.”

Remaining laser-focused on his core message regarding economic equality and health care, Sanders stopped short of pointing out that a portion of the money being spent to keep him from winning the nomination came from Democratic donors worried less about corporate America’s bottom line than about the U.S. government’s bottom line on Israel.

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