You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Criticizing Israel Is No Longer Political Suicide

As we head into New York’s primary, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have proved that voters will welcome a different course.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Conventional wisdom, like most things in politics, changes very slowly. Politicians usually stay the safe course until evidence mounts that there’s a better one. The pile of evidence for a new direction is starting to become substantial when it comes to the discourse around Israel and Palestine.

This presidential primary season has had its fair share of candidates who insist the United States support Israel unconditionally. Nowhere was that more clearly on display than at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). With the exception of Bernie Sanders, who declined to attend the conference, each candidate for the White House tried to outdo the others in professing their love and commitment to Israel.

But even Donald Trump, whose appearance at the AIPAC conference caused a good amount of controversy, has stretched the boundaries of discourse. Indeed, when Trump said earlier in the campaign that he intended to be “sort of a neutral guy” between Israel and the Palestinians, observers gasped. At first, it was dismissed as another example of Trump’s ignorance about foreign affairs. Or perhaps, some thought, he was assuming that the Christian evangelicals and Jewish conservatives who might be put off by that statement were going to vote for other candidates anyway.

But as it turned out, Trump won the Republican primary in South Carolina soon after, and has drawn strong support from evangelicals. As my colleague Matt Duss wrote, “ Trump’s success shows that a whole set of positions that Republican hawks have insisted for years are ‘non-negotiable’ are, in fact, quite negotiable, and that a Republican candidate can reject those positions, even mock them, and still win decisively.”

In last week’s Democratic debate, many expected the subject of Israel to be a big problem for Bernie Sanders. The debate took place in Brooklyn, New York, a place that can make a strong case for being the capital of Jewish support for Israel. Only days before, in an editorial board meeting with the New York Daily News, Sanders had raised hackles by confusing the number of Palestinians injured (over 10,000) in the 2014 Gaza war between Israel and Hamas with the number killed (over 2,000).

In the debate, Sanders made bold statements that contrasted sharply with Hillary Clinton’s refusal to criticize Israeli actions. “In the long run if we are ever going to bring peace to that region which has seen so much hatred and so much war, we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity,” Sanders said.

Publicly defending the Palestinians is unusual, though not unheard of on the campaign trail. Barack Obama did so in 2008. But Sanders went further, saying, “In the long term there will never be peace in that region unless the United States plays a role, an even-handed role trying to bring people together and recognizing the serious problems that exist among the Palestinian people.” And, he added, “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.”

A direct critique of the Israeli prime minister is unprecedented from an American presidential candidate. And a pledge to be even-handed, rather than solely defend Israel’s interests, is not a common refrain. To say these things in New York of all places would have been heretofore unimaginable.

Will it hurt Sanders in the New York primary? That remains to be seen. Polls thus far don’t show that the Israel issue has hurt him. Clinton was polling at about 30 points ahead of him at the beginning of April. Sanders has cut that in half, and his deficit remains there. Meanwhile, Trump is expected to win New York.

Both Trump and Sanders have gone well beyond the usual parameters that constrain this issue, into territory that was supposed to be a political minefield. They have both come through alive and well. Why did that happen?

For one thing, both Trump and Sanders spoke in a manner that, while outside the generally accepted elite discourse on Israel, was firmly in the center of the views of American voters. For many years, poll after poll has shown that Americans want the president to be even-handed when it comes to mediating the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Majorities have consistently rejected favoring Israel in the talks. This is true despite the fact that polls have also shown, for a very long time and with remarkable consistency, that Americans view Israel favorably and the Palestinians very unfavorably.

Sanders and Trump were both staunch in their friendship toward Israel, and their criticisms and declarations of even-handedness therefore put them much more in line with the majority of Americans than the other candidates. Indeed, a 2014 poll of American Jews showed a large majority in favor of the United States exerting pressure on Israel to reach a peace agreement as long as it also pressured the Palestinians as well. So both Sanders and Trump, and only them, in this one regard, sit squarely with the majority of American Jews as well.

Does that mean that these two political outsiders have now shown the path forward? Not quite. Another incident just before the New York primary demonstrates that there is still a long way to go.

The Sanders campaign hired a young Jewish activist, Simone Zimmerman, as their head of outreach to the Jewish community. Zimmerman already had an impressive resume of activism against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and just as an impressive record of supporting Israel’s legitimate rights. Progressives were still hailing the appointment when a right-wing hit piece appeared based on a Facebook post from two years ago. The post was an impassioned criticism of Netanyahu, complete with a pair of cuss words.

Although Zimmerman had edited the two-year old post mere hours after posting it, right-wing activists monitoring her Facebook page had already captured a screenshot of it, saving the post for a time when it would become useful.

After the hit piece on Zimmerman came out, major figures in the Jewish community, such as former head of the Anti-Defamation League Abe Foxman and former head of the World Jewish Council Ronald Lauder, called for her dismissal. In short order, the Sanders campaign suspended her.

There is much to say about that incident. But it is clear that the ensuing controversy was, in the estimation of the Sanders camp, more trouble than a relatively low-level campaign worker was worth. Zimmerman was left out in the cold.

Zimmerman was falsely painted as anti-Israel and as a supporter of the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel (BDS). Neither is true, but she has spoken up about the need to engage with BDS activists and she is certainly opposed to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Most of all, unlike Sanders or Trump, Zimmerman is simply an activist, a young woman who made a much easier target. The fact that the Sanders campaign suspended her so quickly is of a piece with why the other candidates marched dutifully to the AIPAC conference weeks ago. Politicians continue to see too much downside and not enough gain from supporting a more nuanced policy debate, one that could set United States policy on a more effective course.

In 2017, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza will turn 50 years old. After decades of failure, it is imperative that the United States re-examine its approach to negotiations and its policy toward the conflict. It should be clear by now that what we have been doing isn’t working.

In recent years, advocates for peace have managed to expand the discussion nationally. But this change is only beginning to be felt among elected officials or candidates for office. The Trump and Sanders campaigns may not have changed the status quo right away, but it has opened the door a bit wider to a serious discussion of the issue. And that is good for both Israelis and Palestinians.