At the beginning of her speech to 18,000 attendees at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference in March, Hillary Clinton offered a short but telling anecdote.
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“Since my first visit to Israel 35 years ago, I have returned many times and made many friends. I have worked with and learned from some of Israel’s great leaders – although I don’t think Yitzhak Rabin ever forgave me for banishing him to the White House balcony when he wanted to smoke.”
Aside from earning a smattering of laughter, Clinton skillfully made a number of points: She presented a tidy portrait of herself as a longtime champion of Israel, highlighted her intimacy with a beloved, peace-seeking prime minister, and reminded the audience that she’s already at home in the White House.
Of all of the presidential candidates, from both parties, who cluttered this primary season until recently, Clinton had the longest public record of engagement with Israel, and has spent decades diligently defending the Jewish state. Jewish voters have rewarded her for her loyalty: In the New York primary in April, she appeared to have easily won the Jewish vote 2-to-1, besting her Jewish rival, Bernie Sanders.
Sanders, meanwhile, is the most successful Jewish presidential candidate in United States history and has the closest personal relationship to Israel, having lived on a kibbutz there for a brief stint in the 1960s. He is also the candidate offering the most critical views on the U.S.-Israel relationship of any mainstream political candidate in recent memory.
Sanders has built a surprisingly strong and sustainable campaign around economic issues, predominantly income inequality, catching his own party off-guard with the resonance of his populist proposals. But for many in the Jewish community, his qualified support for Israel and frequent statements acknowledging Palestinian claims have been as startling as his embrace of the term “socialist” has been for establishment Democrats.
Though Sanders’ campaign website states that the senator “has long supported a two-state solution that recognizes Israel’s right to exist in peace and security,” it also says that “Israelis must end the blockade of Gaza, and cease developing settlements on Palestinian land” – requirements generally not proffered by mainstream national candidates.
In fact, Sanders is reportedly planning to push for revisions to the Democratic Party’s official positions on Israel at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia. According to The Washington Post, Sanders is expected push for a more even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that focuses on elevating Palestinian rights.
The divergence of the two main Democratic candidates on Israel echoes the policy differences that have turned what was expected to be a quick and sleepy primary race into a contentious marathon to the convention. For Jewish voters invested in the U.S.’ relationship with Israel, the viewpoints championed by Clinton and Sanders are either refreshingly or disturbingly varied – depending on your perspective.
Clinton’s campaign website makes much of her three-decade public commitment to Israel, dedicating an entire page to her personal, diplomatic and legislative history with the country under the headline: “Hillary Clinton and Israel: A 30-Year Record of Friendship, Leadership and Strength.”
Samples of the policy priorities that follow include guaranteeing “Israel’s qualitative military edge to ensure the IDF is equipped to deter and defeat aggression from the full spectrum of threats,” “stand up against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement,” and “cut off efforts to unilaterally recognize Palestinian statehood outside of the context of negotiations with Israel.”
But Clinton has also found herself walking a tightrope as the former secretary of state under U.S. President Barack Obama, who has presided over a period of deteriorating U.S.-Israel diplomatic relations, owing in part to bad personal blood between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and an Iran nuclear deal hugely unpopular with pro-Israel advocates.
Clinton helped lay the groundwork for that deal and now finds herself needing to both defend it and reassure its critics.
“We must maintain the legal and diplomatic architecture to turn all the sanctions back on if needed,” she said in her AIPAC speech. “If I’m elected the leaders of Iran will have no doubt that if we see any indication that they are violating their commitment not to seek, develop or acquire nuclear weapons, the United States will act to stop it, and that we will do so with force if necessary.”
Heading into the 2008 presidential primaries, Clinton was favored by Jewish voters but ultimately lost to Obama. As his secretary of state, she was involved in a number of miscalculations that helped sour his relationship with the Israeli government, including supporting his call for a settlement freeze in 2009, which she later came to regret.
“In retrospect, our early, hard line on settlements didn’t work,” Clinton wrote in “Hard Choices,” her 2014 memoir.
But she continued to criticize the policy, telling CNN that settlements were “my biggest complaint with the Israeli government.” She went on: “The continuing settlements which have been denounced by successive American administrations on both sides of the aisle are clearly a terrible signal to send if at the same time you claim you’re looking for a two-state solution.”
Clinton made this point at the height of the Gaza War in the summer of 2014, but was firm in placing the blame for that conflict with Hamas. “I have said publicly – and I believe it – that Hamas provoked Israel in order to actually cause what we are now seeing,” she said in the CNN interview.
Sanders, meanwhile has adamantly criticized Israel’s actions during that war, continuing his criticism of the Israeli military which dates to his time at the mayor of Burlington, Vermont. “The sight of Israeli soldiers breaking the arms and legs of Arabs is reprehensible” and “must be condemned,” he said at a press conference in Burlington in 1988.
Sanders condemned Hamas’ “indiscriminate” rocket fire into Israeli territory and “Hamas’ use of civilian neighborhoods to launch those attacks,” but he also called Israeli attacks on Gaza “disproportionate,” referencing “the widespread killing of civilians.”
As to the scale of the civilian casualties, Sanders made one of his campaign’s most serious gaffes when, in an interview with the editorial board of the New York Daily News on April 1, he admitted to being unsure of the exact number, and then grossly overstated it.
“Anybody help me out here, because I don’t remember the figures, but my recollection is over 10,000 innocent people were killed in Gaza. Does that sound right?”
Two weeks earlier, however, Sanders correctly cited the largely accepted United Nations figure of 1,500 civilian deaths during the Gaza War in a Middle East policy speech. The speech was noteworthy in part because of where it did not take place: at AIPAC, where Sanders had been invited, but declined to attend, offering instead to speak via video, which the conference declined.
Instead, he outlined his priorities at a high school in Salt Lake City, Utah, explicitly expressing his concerns for the Palestinian people.
“So when we talk about Israel and Palestinian areas, it is important to understand that today there is a whole lot of suffering among Palestinians and that cannot be ignored,” he said. “You can’t have good policy that results in peace if you ignore one side.”
He also went on to question the policies of Netanyahu, which has become a rhetorical no-fly zone in American politics. “It is absurd for elements within the Netanyahu government to suggest that building more settlements in the West Bank is the appropriate response to the most recent violence,” Sanders said.
He doubled down on this stance during a heated Democratic debate in Brooklyn on April 14. “There comes a time when if we pursue justice and peace, we are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all of the time,” Sanders said, to hearty applause.
A year earlier, Sanders was the first senator to announce that he would not attend the controversial speech that Netanyahu gave to the U.S. Senate at the invitation of then-Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner on Obama’s proposed Iran nuclear deal.
Clinton was mum ahead of that speech: She was in Washington, D.C. that day, but did not meet with the Israeli leader, to the chagrin of some.
Once her presidential campaign was underway and perhaps to signal a shift from Obama, she took a more conciliatory approach, writing in an op-ed in November, “I would also invite the Israeli prime minister to the White House in my first month in office.”
The balancing act reflects a long and complicated relationship with Netanyahu: She chewed him out in a 2010 phone call over a settlement embarrassment involving Vice President Joe Biden, and said, in the 2014 CNN interview, “I’ve known Bibi a long time and I have a very good relationship with him, in part because we can yell at each other, and we do. And I was often the designated yeller.”
Clinton now seems to be counting on the fact that her decades-old history with Israel and willingness to engage with that country’s leader will thaw the perceived cold war of the Obama years, soothe over the partisan cracks in the U.S.-Israel relationship and win over the conservative Jewish leaders who are simply too uncomfortable with Donald Trump to get behind him.
But while Sanders has succeeded in nudging Clinton to the left on certain economic policies over the course of the primary campaign, on Israel, she hasn’t budged.