Israel voted for a prime minister on Monday for the third time in under 12 months. The two top contenders — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz — have diametrically different temperaments and have deadlocked in the previous two contests, though Netanyahu’s position this time is much stronger. But what likely matters more for the U.S.-Israel relationship than who wins and forms a governing coalition is the result of the Democratic presidential primary, with one of its key milestones the next day’s Super Tuesday contests.
Right now, Bernie Sanders is the leading contender for the Democratic nomination. While a continuation of President Donald Trump’s tenure would presumably do little to change America’s relationship with Israel, and the other top Democratic candidates hold fairly traditional views of the relationship with America’s longtime ally, Sanders is different.
A democratic socialist, Sanders has concerned many constituencies in the Democratic Party with his unconventional approach to issues. He’s pushing for a major overhaul to American foreign policy — including on Israel. That has many Israelis and pro-Israel Americans in both parties terrified.
These fears are not unfounded. Unlike other top presidential candidates throughout history, Sanders has been openly critical of Israel and its leadership. At the most recent Democratic debate, he made a dramatic departure from American political orthodoxy by calling the Israeli prime minister a “reactionary racist.” He made an equally unprecedented attack on the largest pro-Israel lobby and mainstay of Washington politics, AIPAC, which is holding its annual gathering Monday, by saying it provides a platform “for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.”
It’s not just rhetoric that has rattled many Jewish voters. Sanders has expressed a willingness to condition the major pillar of the U.S.-Israel alliance, the billions in military aid the U.S. gives Israel, on the country’s treatment of the Palestinians — though the United States also benefits from Israel serving as a counterweight to radicalism in the region and an important source of military, technology and intelligence cooperation and innovation. And while Sanders touts his Jewish heritage and time on an Israeli kibbutz to demonstrate his belief in the country’s right to exist, he also calls for a more balanced approach to the Palestinian conflict and frequently highlights their suffering. Unlike Trump, he is unlikely to tolerate any expansionist Israeli policies.
Israeli leaders, not generally known for their subtlety, have been transparent about their fears. Foreign Minister Israel Katz of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party has said that “people who support Israel will not support” Sanders. Parliamentarian Yair Lapid, who is running with Gantz’s centrist party, has said Sanders’ rise has him “very worried.” Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations called him an “ignorant fool.” More surprising has been the public alarms sounded by American Jews. In response to his criticism, AIPAC called the Vermont senator “shameful.” The Democratic Majority for Israel, a pro-Israel PAC, has run attack ads against him.
A wedge between the countries could be catastrophic for Israel, which relies heavily on the United States for both military assistance and diplomatic support; the U.S. is also Israel’s largest trading partner. In international forums, like the United Nations, the U.S. is often Israel’s lone defender from resolutions that seek to censure Israel and restrain its actions against terror groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. The U.S. has also been critical in helping Israel counter the isolation of the growing Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, or BDS, movement, and its shared desire to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions and regional terror have given Israel space to maneuver.
It’s not just Israel, of course. Sanders represents a dramatic break with the liberal interventionist policies of the past several generations of Democratic presidents, which is part of the reason the prospect of his winning the nomination has spread shockwaves through the party. Mainstream Democrats have also begun to express concerns about his history of support for socialist regimes in Latin America and the Far East.
But Israel stands particularly concerned about his relatively isolationist approach, starting with his planned withdrawal from the Middle East. Disengagement fosters instability, which fosters radicalism and violence and creates a void for unfriendly powers such as Iran and Russia to fill. A U.S. administration averse to exercising military power is also less likely to back Israel when it takes controversial measures to defend itself.
Obviously, much depends on whether Sanders would deliver if he won the White House. In some 30 years in Congress, Sanders passed very little legislation and his foreign policy record was mostly one of dissent. The achievement he most often touts is his opposition to the Iraq War — in 2002. He twice introduced bills opposing war with Iran; the first iteration had no co-sponsors. In 2019, he led a resolution calling to end America’s role in the war in Yemen; it was vetoed by Trump.
On Israel, Sanders has never introduced measures supporting the Palestinians, nor has he offered companion legislation to House efforts addressing the plight of Palestinian children. He has joined in unanimous resolutions reaffirming Israel’s right to self-defense in Gaza, though he voted against anti-BDS legislation (but claims he doesn’t support the BDS movement).
And any new president has to rein in their ambitions. Obama’s aspirations for pivoting away from the Middle East were constrained by reality. National security interests also prevailed; for all his tensions with the Israeli government, Obama approved the largest military aid package to Israel in U.S. history.
Yet the tension Obama did experience with Netanyahu’s government underscores strains between the Democratic Party and Israel that predate Sanders’ candidacy, making the change he threatens even more potent. Many Democrats, stalwart Israel supporters among them, have developed a litany of grievances with Israel’s right-wing government, its policies and incendiary politics.
The lack of progress toward a two-state solution, growing Israeli support for annexation of settlements and Israel’s treatment of minorities and non-Orthodox Jews are all seen as anathema to Democratic values. Netanyahu has also willfully alienated Democrats since assuming office in 2009 by overtly courting Republicans, chief among them Trump.
These political and personality conflicts come on top of a Democratic Party turning further left and struggling to forge a new foreign policy consensus. Sanders’ progressive views have found an eager audience. While many Democrats in Washington find the approach unsettling, they can be reluctant to criticize Sanders for fear of further dividing the party.
The foundations of the U.S.-Israel relationships are likely strong enough to endure even the most dramatic changes to the leaders at their helm. But the tenor and direction of U.S. foreign policy — and the U.S.-Israel relationship — may be headed for a shakeup with or without Sanders at the helm. Sanders has shown that even when he doesn’t affect policy, he can still influence the discourse; his attack on Netanyahu went noticeably unchallenged during the Democratic debate. If he does prevail on Super Tuesday and beyond, that shakeup could be an earthquake.