Two important events took place in the last seven days related to Israel’s role in American political discourse. The first was last Thursday night’s Democratic debate in Brooklyn, when Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton had one of the longest sustained exchanges on Israel that I can recall in any presidential primary debate. The second was the annual J Street conference, which hosted speeches by Joe Biden and John Kerry that were both critical of the current Israeli government to some degree. The conventional wisdom that has coalesced around the first is wrong, and the second demonstrates why. What they both point to is not that some mythical taboo about Israel has been broken, but that the extent to which Israel is politicized is changing and that the pro-Israel community will have to grapple with a new landscape.
After being asked about the U.S.-Israel relationship during the debate last week, Sanders made a number of points that have attracted attention, among them that Israel used disproportionate force in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge in 2014 despite defending Israel’s right to defend itself; that Palestinians must be treated with dignity and respect; and that the U.S. has to say that Bibi Netanyahu is not right all the time. Many rushed to dub this an unprecedented expansion of the dialogue surrounding Israel in the American political system. An ABC News article called it “something that Mideast experts and advocates on either side have never seen someone in his position do before,” while CNN went even further, trumpeting that “Bernie Sanders is taking a sledgehammer to the political status quo on Israel” and that “he upended a long-standing tenet of American politics: that unflinching support for Israel is non-negotiable.”
There’s no question that Sanders’ defense of Palestinian rights was unprecedented for a presidential debate, and he deserves credit for taking a principled stand. But let’s not overblow the big picture; to suggest that he has smashed some redline on Israel and the manner in which the U.S. supports it takes a unique type of historical amnesia or outright ignorance. It reminds me of those who denounce the suppression of critical views of Israel in the midst of embarking on speaking tours or writing best-selling books doing the very thing that they claim is impossible to do. Let’s leave aside the current very public contretemps that have taken place between President Obama and Netanyahu – both of whom would no doubt guffaw at the claim that Sanders is unique in saying that Netanyahu is not always right – or the famed incident during the first President Bush’s administration when Secretary of State James Baker in testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee blasted Israel for obstructionism and recited the White House’s phone number for the Israelis to call “when you’re serious about peace,” or when President Ford publicly rebuked Israel and announced a reassessment of U.S. policy in the Middle East due to frustration with the Israelis. Perhaps the nastiest moment between the U.S. and Israel came during the Reagan administration and the debate over selling AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia, when the White House and the deal’s supporters in Congress publicly decried Israeli influence and made the case that Israel was inappropriately attempting to subvert U.S. foreign policy for its own ends. In a foreshadowing of last year’s Iran debate, the Reagan administration repeatedly insisted that the AWACS sale would actually benefit Israeli security, despite the Israeli government’s insistence to the contrary. To argue in the wake of the Clinton-Sanders debate that we have now approached a unique moment, where politicians are for the first time doing anything other than providing Israel with a figurative blank check, is quite plainly abject nonsense.
In fact, Israel has always simultaneously been politicized while drawing bipartisan support. The question is not if, but to what extent, and that brings us to J Street’s annual gathering. J Street has done a very good job over the past eight years of building and selling itself as the home for Jewish Democrats, making the case that AIPAC no longer represents their thinking on Israel. While I have no doubt at all that AIPAC’s leadership continues to harbor, and always will harbor, bipartisan ambitions, and there is also little question that there are still substantial numbers of Democrats who are comfortable in the AIPAC fold, there is also little question that the monopoly AIPAC once enjoyed is now over. I find it hard to see J Street ever rising to AIPAC’s size or influence, but it has a permanent and significant niche. Biden and Kerry went to address J Street as a reward for the organization’s advocacy of the Iran deal, but do not expect this to be a one-time thing. Democrats are increasingly going to show up to both AIPAC and J Street, and it reflects the fact that J Street is in tune with much of the Democratic base.
This is also a function of Newton’s third law in action with regard to Netanyahu and the Republican Party. The symbiotic relationship between the two and the barely disguised effort on the Israeli government’s part to favor one side of the American political spectrum over the other was guaranteed to provoke a response. The form the response has taken is that Democrats are more comfortable criticizing Netanyahu, and J Street is happy to take a different approach to AIPAC on this subject and capitalize on the new political battle lines. Once the Republicans and Netanyahu dropped any hesitation at using Israel as a cudgel, the Democrats were going to drop their hesitation at using Israel in their own way, which means a tilt toward J Street. The battle to keep J Street out of the mainstream is over, even if AIPAC is still going to be the more obvious destination for many.
This ultimately means that the politicization of Israel will not only continue apace, but increase. J Street is a different sort of animal than AIPAC in that it is far more of an overtly political organization. I don’t mean this as a knock on J Street, since there is nothing wrong with being political, but it does mean that there are consequences for the structure of the pro-Israel community in the U.S. One need look no further than the debate in Las Vegas last month between J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami and Republican Jewish Coalition head Matt Brooks to see where things are headed. An AIPAC chief would never agree to participate in such a debate, but it is a simple fact that as more Democrats move toward J Street, AIPAC is going to look even more Republican than it already does to many by default. American Jews who legitimately care about Israel are going to divide even more starkly into two camps, and that means unification around a general platitude of being pro-Israel but harsh disagreement on the specifics and boundaries of what that means. Israel is being politicized, but if you think that a socialist candidate for president who criticizes Israel during a primary debate is the harbinger of a groundbreaking new trend, you haven’t been paying very close attention.