The stars in the political heavens were almost aligned. Two weeks ago, the prospect that a Jew would be nominated by the Democratic Party to be president of the United States was so palpable that Senator Bernie Sanders was asked about it during a debate in South Carolina. “I am very proud of being Jewish,” Sanders said. “I actually lived in Israel for some months.”
There was another Jew on the platform: Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City.
What was remarkable was that there simply was no issue that a Jew could, or should, become president – that two of the top three contenders in the race were Jewish.
As Batya Ungar-Sargon, opinion editor of Joe Biden, wrote:
“The face-off between the Jewish billionaire and the Jewish socialist is the most Jewish political moment in American history. But the fact that Sanders and Bloomberg are Jewish is something Americans barely seem to notice about them; it’s simply receded into the background of their bids for the presidency.”
This was thanks to Senator Joseph Lieberman, who broke the presidency barrier for Jewish Americans when Al Gore named him as his running mate in 2000.
The real issues reach to wider splits in the Democratic Party over Israel, and between Trump and the Democrats over Israel and its future.
Sanders said, “I happen to believe that right now, sadly, tragically, in Israel, through Bibi Netanyahu you have a reactionary racist who is now running that country.”
The next day, Sanders announced he would boycott the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) convention in Washington – a must-do on the political calendar each year.
“The Israeli people have the right to live in peace and security. So do the Palestinian people,” Sanders tweeted. “I remain concerned about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights. For that reason, I will not attend their conference.”
The response from Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, was razor-sharp: “Bernie Sanders is an ignorant fool and a liar. We don’t want him in Israel.”
Bloomberg did speak to AIPAC, and laid out his Mideast policy views:
“Senator Sanders has spent 30 years boycotting this event. And as you’ve heard by now, he called AIPAC a racist platform. Well let me tell you, he’s dead wrong.
“Calling it a racist platform is an attempt to discredit those voices, intimidate people from coming here, and weaken the US–Israel relationship. I will never impose conditions on military aid, no matter what government is in power.”
Bloomberg said if elected he “will always have Israel’s back”, and also rejected attempts to make support for Israel a partisan issue for either side. “Israel should never be a football that American politicians kick around in an effort to score points.”
Joe Biden has not given a major speech on Israel during the campaign so far. He strongly supports a two-state solution, and said, “I strongly oppose Israel’s settlement policy on the West Bank,” but he would oppose cutting off military aid in response to Israeli actions in the West Bank.
If Biden prevails and is elected, he will have to straddle, as president, the fault lines on Israel within the Democratic Party that Bernie Sanders champions – along with a very pro-Palestine, anti-Israel wing in the Congress, including House Members Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.
Enter President Trump. Prime Minister Netanyahu lauds Trump regularly: “The greatest friend Israel has ever had in the White House,” with Iran, Golan and Jerusalem the highlights.
Trump has retweeted praise from supporters that “President Trump is the greatest President for Jews and for Israel in the history of the world, not just America,” and that Trump is the “King of Israel” and that Israeli Jews “love him like he is the second coming of God”.
Trump would love nothing more than to run against Sanders – to excoriate him as a socialist and tie all Democrats to socialism.
But the other piece of this dream run is what Trump could do with the Democrats and the Jews.
Trump has told supporters in Mar-a-Lago that “the Democrats hate Jewish people”, and that the Democrats are “an anti-Jewish party” – and tie all Democrats to the most extreme anti-Israel elements in the House.
The seeds of partisan schisms over Israel date from 2015, when Netanyahu engineered through the Republican House Speaker John Boehner an address to Congress on Iran – without advising President Obama. It was a very bitter ploy.
With both countries in immense political flux – we do not know the Democratic nominee, we do not know who the Israeli prime minister will be, we do not know if Trump wins re-election – what does all this mean?
Joe Biden will press to unify the Democratic Party and downplay significant differences within it, such as over Israel.
He will support the Obama–Biden legacy – including the Iran nuclear deal – and seek to tamp down any support for the BDS movement.
Trump will do everything he can to take Jewish American votes away from the Democrats by touting his relentless support for Israel and his unyielding hostility to Iran.
A Sanders nomination will open unprecedented rifts in American society over US support for Israel.
Sanders aside, the key to the texture and temperature of debate over Israel in the presidential campaign actually rests with Netanyahu.
If he continues as prime minister and annexes – in the middle of the presidential campaign – the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, that will cause an eruption inside the Democratic Party – and across America – on whether Israel is right or wrong, and the consequences of such a decision.
And therein lies the great danger of the wedging of Jews over Israel: support for Israel is bipartisan in America today – and that is the true key to Israel’s security. Make Israel a partisan issue in the United States – and Israel is weaker.