There are plenty of reasons for Bernie Sanders not to run for president. He’s an old white guy who may have trouble generating enthusiasm from people of color and women, especially after the recent revelations of sexism in his 2016 campaign. Of all the potential Democratic nominees, he’s the one most likely to prompt a centrist third party bid that could split the anti-Trump vote. And in Elizabeth Warren, Democrats already have a candidate who can authentically articulate the anti-corporate message that Sanders voiced last time around.
Still, I hope Sanders runs, if only for one reason: To change the debate inside the Democratic Party about Israel.
Opinion | Bernie Sanders Has To Run - To Make Democrats More Critical Of Israel
On Israel, the Democratic Party is where the GOP was in 2015 on immigration and trade. The Republican base was growing more restrictionist and more protectionist but party elites—who received funding from pro-immigration and pro-free trade business groups and feared that an anti-immigrant message would alienate Latinos—did not reflect their voters. Republican grassroots activists sounded like Ann Coulter; Republican politicians sounded like Mitt Romney.
Into the breach came Donald Trump. Because he was not constrained by close ties to the Republican establishment, and because he felt no compunction about indulging in Coulteresque bigotry, he was free to articulate a more nativist, protectionist and racist message than his competitors. And in so doing, he changed the Republican Party. By highlighting what Republican voters actually wanted, he created a new model for GOP politicians. Now even Marco Rubio, once the darling of the party’s pro-immigration, pro-free trade elites, demands a border wall and tariffs against China.
Sanders could do something similar on Israel. Polling clearly shows that in the Netanyahu era, Democrats have grown increasingly critical of Israeli policy. Yet Democratic leaders—from Charles Schumer to Nancy Pelosi to Joe Biden—rarely articulate that criticism. Many Democratic politicians formed their views of Israel decades ago, when the occupation was less entrenched and before Israeli politics shifted decisively to the right. They also forged ties to AIPAC before J Street had created a progressive Jewish alternative. As a result, they’re in the same position on Israel that Jeb Bush was in on trade and immigration. Through both conviction and association, they’re locked into positions that most grassroots Democrats no longer hold. That creates an opportunity. And of all the major potential contenders Sanders is most likely to seize it.
When it comes to Israel, you can divide the senators likely to run for president into three camps. The candidates in camp number one—Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar—seem mostly interested in keeping their heads down. In August 2017, four Democratic Senators sent a letter to then-Secretary of State Tillerson asking the State Department to monitor the Israeli government’s highly dubious prosecution of nonviolent Palestinian activist Issa Amro. That November, ten Democratic Senators penned a letter to Netanyahu asking him not to demolish a Palestinian and a Bedouin village. Last May, thirteen Senate Democrats sent Secretary of State Pompeo a letter urging the Trump administration to alleviate the suffering in Gaza. Booker, Harris, Gillibrand and Klobuchar’s names were on none of them.
Little better illustrates their silence than their reaction when The Intercept’s Zaid Jilani last April asked their views about Israel’s shooting of Palestinian marchers who sought to breach the fence that surrounds Gaza. The result: “Booker and Gillibrand did not respond to a request for comment. Harris’s office said it would send a statement, but did not do so or respond to a follow-up inquiry.”
Camp number two consists of Elizabeth Warren. A few years ago, Warren was where Booker, Harris, Gillibrand and Klobuchar are today. When a reporter asked her view of Israel’s war in Gaza in 2014, she turned and hurried away. But more recently, she’s found her voice. She signed the November 2017 letter urging Israel not to bulldoze Palestinian and Bedouin villages and the May 2018 letter asking Trump to do more to alleviate the humanitarian situation in Gaza. During last April’s marches in Gaza, she called on Israel to “exercise restraint and respect the rights of Palestinians to peacefully protest.”
But there’s still a wide gulf between Warren and the sole occupant of camp number three: Sanders. For starters, he doesn’t just challenge Israeli policy when events force his hand. He brings up the subject of his own accord. When Warren delivered her major foreign policy address last November, she didn’t mention Israel. When Sanders delivered his last October, he included Netanyahu’s misdeeds—“passing the recent ‘Nation State law,’ which essentially codifies the second-class status of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens, aggressively undermining the longstanding goal of a two-state solution, and ignoring the economic catastrophe in Gaza”—in his account of rising authoritarianism around the world.
Sanders also does more than Warren to push the boundaries of Beltway Israel discourse. It began in 2016 when he criticized Hillary Clinton for going to AIPAC and offering “virtually no discussion at all about the needs of the Palestinian people.” But since then, Sanders has gone much further. In a speech to J Street in February 2017, he did something virtually unheard of among American politicians: He acknowledged the nakba. “The founding of Israel,” he observed “involved the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people already living there, the Palestinian people.” Last spring, he did something equally unusual: He helped people in Gaza speak for themselves. In a remarkable series of videos, he allowed Palestinians in Gaza to describe the human cost of Israel’s blockade, and to rebut charges by Washington politicians and pundits that the people marching against it are pawns of Hamas. Finally, Sanders—uniquely among Democratic senators—has declared himself open to cutting or conditioning military aid to Israel.
What explains Sanders’ unusual boldness? Perhaps it’s because, as a self-professed socialist, he’s spent his career on the ideological margins. Being perceived as radical doesn’t faze him. Perhaps it’s because he’s hired a foreign policy advisor, former Foundation for Middle East Peace President Matt Duss, who stands out among congressional staffers both for his knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and his insistence on seeing Palestinians as fully human. Perhaps it’s because, as a Jew, Sanders feels particularly invested in the subject and somewhat insulated from charges of anti-Semitism. (When it comes to challenging Israeli policy, the second boldest senator—Dianne Feinstein—is Jewish too).
For whatever reason, a second Sanders candidacy could fundamentally change the debate inside the Democratic Party on Israel. Do ordinary Democrats support giving the Israeli government almost $4 billion per year—no strings attached—while it entrenches a brutal occupation in the West Bank and maintains a blockade that is making Gaza unlivable. But pollsters rarely even ask the question because politicians have never made it part of the public discussion. Most Democratic politicians have never had to justify their support for such aid in a campaign. If Sanders forces them to—if he asks his competitors why they’d rather give Netanyahu almost $4 billion to buy weapons than use that money to fight poverty-it will become painfully clear that they can’t justify it. Sanders will win that debate in a rout. Every ambitious Democratic politician in America will take notice, and the party will lurch towards an Israel policy towards reflects its professed ideals.
Opinion | Bernie Sanders Has To Run - To Make Democrats More Critical Of Israel
That’s why Bernie Sanders needs to run.
Peter Beinart is a Senior Columnist at The Forward and Professor of Journalism and Political Science at the City University of New York. He is also a Contributor to The Atlantic and a CNN Political Commentator.