Pro-Israel Jewish Groups Worry as Sanders Surges Toward Monday's Iowa Caucus

In Pew poll of Jewish Democrats, the ‘democratic socialist’ came in dead last among four front-runners

Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer
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Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally on February 1, 2020 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally on February 1, 2020 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.Credit: Tom Brenner/Getty Images/AFP
Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer

The email alert from the Democratic Majority for Israel carried a sense of urgency and doom.

The missive, a fundraising plea with the subject line “This Poll Has Me Worried,” hit inboxes two days before the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus officially kicks off primary season on Monday night.

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In the latest poll of Democratic primary voters, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders was surging, pulling to the front of the pack with 27 percent support – a 6 percentage point jump from December. He overtook former Vice President Joe Biden, who polled at 26 percent – down 2 percentage points in the same amount of time.

The email came just a day after the news that the Democratic Majority for Israel was the first group to fund anti-Sanders ads in Iowa. (The move had a boomerang effect: Fired up from the attacks on their candidate, Sanders supporters raised $1.3 million for him on the day the negative ad ran.)

Democratic Majority for Israel CEO Mark Mellman explained the reason for the $700,000 ad buy in his own email dispatch to supporters, explaining that the group was trying to avert a “Democratic disaster on Election Day.”

Mellman continued: “There are unambiguous signs that our party could nominate the candidate we believe is least capable of winning in November and most likely to adopt a hostile attitude toward Israel,” describing Sanders’ views on Israel as “well outside the mainstream of our Party.”

There is new evidence that the group’s position is reflective of the American Jewish community as a whole. A Pew Research Center survey published on January 31 showed that the majority of American Jews share Mellman’s group’s concerns about Sanders –who, if victorious, would make history as the first Jewish presidential nominee of a major political party.

While it is clear that the hesitancy of American Jews to embrace Sanders has many factors – first and foremost, electability – concern about Israel also plays a role.

In the Pew poll, Sanders came in dead last among the four front-runners for the nomination among Jewish Democrats. Biden was the clear favorite, with 31 percent of those polled favoring his candidacy, followed by 20 percent supporting Senator Elizabeth Warren and 13 percent for former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Only 11 percent backed Sanders, who came in ahead of the other Jewish candidate in the race, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg – a latecomer who polled at 8 percent.

Is Sanders really so scary? Would his policy toward Israel truly look radically different from the other Democratic front-runners’?

Tom Steyr, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar at the Democratic primary debate on January 14, 2020.
Tom Steyr, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar at the Democratic primary debate on January 14, 2020.Credit: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Prof. Eytan Gilboa of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, is an expert on U.S.-Israeli relations. He agrees with the Democratic Majority for Israel assessment that the choice of either Sanders or Warren would have more worrisome implications for Israel than Biden, Buttigieg or second-tier contenders like Bloomberg or Senator Amy Klobuchar.

Gilboa, who published a paper this week analyzing the front-runners regarding Middle East policy, puts Sanders and Warren in the category of “radical renovators” who believe the current U.S. governmental system “is totally broken and must be replaced with a ‘progressive’ system.” If reassessment and change are on the table, presumably, this would include rethinking the fundamental relationship with Israel.

He writes that Biden and Buttigieg, by contrast, are “moderate restorationists” who believe in changing policies but not the system and its foundational assumptions.

Most Israelis, including the majority of Israel’s political parties, view the Trump era as a mixed bag, says Gilboa. They are clearly thrilled with the pro-Israel tilt of U.S. policy – most notably the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the recognition of Israeli sovereigny over the Golan Heights, the cancellation of the Iran nuclear deal and now the Trump peace plan, which was negotiated without Palestinian participation and heavily weighted in favor of Israel’s interests.

While this has made Trump hugely popular in Israel, it is also recognized that his presidency, and his close ties to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have deeply damaged the spirit of bipartisanship in Washington. Since bipartisan support has always been one of the foundational blocks of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, this does not augur well for its future, particularly one in which Democrats regain political power.

With a candidate like Sanders, Gilboa notes, Israel would be getting the worst of both worlds. Sanders has made “problematic” policy statements that have alarmed the pro-Israel camp – declaring that one of his first moves as president would be to restore the Iran deal, and showing a clear willingness to leverage U.S. aid to pressure Israel in the interest of achieving U.S. policy goals. His election would surely deepen, not heal, the partisan divide, making the ability to bring the two parties together in support of the Jewish state even more difficult than it is today.

It doesn’t take an expert to figure out that the pro-Israel camp has reasons to strongly prefer Biden, who called Sanders’ support for leveraging aid to stop settlement growth a “gigantic mistake.” He added: “The idea that we would withdraw military assistance from Israel, on the condition that they change a specific policy, I find to be absolutely outrageous.”

Pete Buttigieg, who in the past has left the door open to pressuring Israel on policy through the withholding of aid, fell more closely in line with Biden last week, saying, “If you’re asking me to commit to withdrawing our support for Israel, the answer is no,” when pressed by an activist from IfNotNow. Buttigieg made his statements at an Iowa town hall meeting when the activist, Elias Newman, asked him whether he would withhold U.S. aid if Israel were to annex parts of the West Bank.

Pete Buttigieg speaks at a campaign event, Feb. 1, 2020 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Pete Buttigieg speaks at a campaign event, Feb. 1, 2020 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.Credit: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

“I’m not talking about withdrawing aid, or withdrawing our support for Israel,” Buttigieg replied. “But what I will say is that in my administration, the Israeli government will get the message that we are not going to support those kinds of steps.”

Newman – at the town hall and later on Twitter – accused Buttigieg of “walking back” a more progressive stance he took earlier in the campaign.

Gilboa believes a Biden/Buttigieg foreign policy would fall in line with the Obama White House, but notes that “if Sanders or Warren wins, they will adopt a radical approach involving major changes to various areas of foreign affairs,” with consequences for Israel not only when it comes to the Palestinians but, more urgently, regarding Iran.

Sanders has said he would re-enter the Iran agreement “on day one of my presidency, and then work with the P5+1 and Iran to build upon it with additional measures to further block any path to a nuclear weapon, restrain Iran’s offensive actions in the region and forge a new strategic balance in the Middle East.”

Sanders’ supporters agree that their candidate would support radical change – but argue that this is what it will take for peace to have a chance in the Middle East, and is long overdue.

Moshe Chertoff, an American-Israeli member of Democrats Abroad and resident of Kibbutz Shomrat in northern Israel, leads the support for Sanders. He “is the only one of the candidates who relates to the Palestinians, and so stands a chance of making them feel that any agreement would be their agreement as well,” Chertoff argues. “To really be pro-Israel, you must also be pro-Palestinian.”

When it comes to leveraging aid, Chertoff says he has no problem with Sanders’ desire to “give some of the money devoted to the defense of Israel to the Palestinians instead, to help them feel like partners in our shared future and get them on board.” Until an Israeli leader “shows a true desire to sit and work it out,” Chartoff notes, he is behind America “holding Israel’s nose to the grindstone” to make peace.

While Gilboa, like many other analysts, places Warren in the “radical” basket alongside Sanders, her stance on Israel and the Middle East has been couched in softer language than the kind favored by the Vermont senator. Warren’s Middle East policy advice is coming from a figure solidly in the Democratic establishment: Ilan Goldenberg was chief of staff to Martin Indyk when the latter served as special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during the 2013-14 Obama administration’s efforts to restart the peace process. Before that, Goldenberg was a staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren reacting at a campaign event in Ames, Iowa, February 2, 2020.
Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren reacting at a campaign event in Ames, Iowa, February 2, 2020. Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and U.S. SenatorCredit: RICK WILKING/ REUTERS

In a video address to the J Street Conference last October, Warren said that making progress toward a two-state solution “might mean finding ways to apply pressure and create consequences for problematic behavior as previous Democratic and Republican presidents have done. For example, if Israel’s government continues with steps to formally annex the West Bank, the United States should make it clear that none of our aid should be used to support annexation.”

Later, in Iowa, when pushed to endorse leveraging aid to Israel, she said, “Everything is on the table.”

In recent days, while denouncing the Trump peace plan, Warren vowed that, if elected, she would “oppose unilateral annexation in any form – and reverse any policy that supports it,” while leaving unclear whether “reversing policy” would include withholding aid.

Mend fences

Gilboa, though, believes Israel’s biggest concern should not be the individual nominee the Democrats choose, but the party’s overall direction. Even if pro-Israel forces get their wish and a moderate like Biden is nominated, a candidate from the “radical” wing may be given the vice presidential slot. And no matter who is on the ticket, he notes, activists on the far left will increasingly have power within the party, providing “substantial influence from the other ideological camp.”

He concludes that Israel’s leadership will need to work hard mending fences with both Democratic Party leaders and American Jews – whom he views as a “bridge” to the Democrats – before the November election, and should be planning ahead on how to approach a Democratic White House and foreign policy.

He expresses concern that all of the parties vying to win the March 2 Israeli election are far too confident that the Trump administration will remain in place for the next four years. However, he hopes that as the primary and polling get underway and grab headlines, they will belatedly acknowledge that possibility.

“People [in Israel] think that the Democrats cannot win and that it is obvious Trump will beat them – therefore they don’t need to worry. I say, ‘Oh, yes, you have to worry.’”

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