WASHINGTON – Sen. Bernie Sanders’ declaration that he will seek the presidency again in 2020 will be important for the ongoing debate about the Democratic Party’s positions regarding Israel.
Sanders has emerged over the past two years, ever since Donald Trump entered the White House, as one of the strongest critics of Israeli policies within the Democratic Party. (Although he is an independent, he caucuses with the Democrats.) His nomination all but assures that questions about Israel, the pro-Israel lobby in Washington and its policies will at some point become central to the campaign.
Sanders was already critical of Israeli policies during his previous presidential run. Foreign policy was not the central issue of his campaign, but when he did address the Middle East, his positions were to the left of the Democratic mainstream and of his rival in that election, Hillary Clinton.
Sanders criticized Israel for civilian deaths in Gaza, and emphasized that he was not afraid of criticizing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He strongly supported the Iran nuclear deal, unlike Clinton, who offered more cautious support and had advisers who promised to take a harder line than Obama on Iran and its allies.
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A month after Trump defeated Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, Sanders announced he had hired Matt Duss, a Middle East expert and activist, to be his senior adviser on foreign policy issues. Duss, previously president of the left-wing Foundation for Middle East Peace, is known as a strong critic of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. In the past, he helped organize a meeting between then-President Barack Obama’s advisers and members of the anti-occupation veterans' group Breaking the Silence.
Over the past two years, Sanders has intensified his involvement in Middle East issues. He harshly criticized Netanyahu’s right-wing policies, and met Israeli and Palestinian activists working against the occupation in the West Bank.
In 2017, in an appearance before the left-wing Jewish group J Street, Sanders ridiculed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for purchasing a yacht worth $450 million. Sanders asked how many Palestinian refugees could have been supported with that money. He has also attacked Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.
Prof. Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland, who conducts polls on American public opinion on the Middle East, told Haaretz he expects Sanders to continue dealing with this issue. “There is a growing gap between the Democratic rank and file, and the party’s establishment and representatives,” he told Haaretz.
Sanders was one of the first prominent Democrats, said Telhami, to try to fill that gap. “Trump and Netanyahu’s partnership has made Israel even less popular among Democrats,” he added. Many Democratic voters, he explained, view the Israeli-Palestinian issue as a “test of consistency” for elected officials: “Do they fight for their party’s values everywhere?”
Lior Weintraub, a former spokesman and chief of staff at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, told Haaretz that while Sanders is very vocal in his opposition to Israeli policies, he doesn’t think it will be a key theme of his campaign. “He is against the party establishment on a long list of issues, and we are one of them,” Weintraub said.
He added, “We have real challenges with certain Democratic voters, and we need to address them urgently. But it’s also important to remember that the vast majority of Democrats still support Israel and see it as an important ally.”