Bernie and Biden on Israel? It’s not as simple as you think.
For those watching where presidential candidates stand on Israel, it is hard to think of a more striking contrast than that between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, the two remaining viable Democratic hopefuls.
The former Vice President, a distinguished U.S. Senator for nearly four decades who at one point chaired the Foreign Relations committee, is a fixture of the establishment that one finds in milieus like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference and the now defunct Saban Forum hosted by the Brookings Institution. When speaking of Israel, Biden almost always reaches back to his days as a young legislator visiting the country, where he met with then Prime Minister Golda Meir. Unsurprisingly, he has as strong a “pro-Israel” reputation in the Democratic Party as anyone else.
By contrast, the Senator from Vermont and standard bearer of the American left has reportedly never attended AIPAC. He has also long been more critical of Israel, especially in its dealings with and occupation of the Palestinians. If elected, he would place human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy, which last held such high priority during the administration of former President Jimmy Carter. In what may be a preview of campaign messaging to come, Matt Duss, Sanders’ foreign policy advisor who made his name in Washington writing about Israel and Palestine, rebuked Biden on Twitter for speaking of the Palestinians’ “legitimate aspirations” instead of “rights” in Biden’s video address to the 2020 AIPAC conference.
Still, there are good reasons to believe this contrast is too simple. Crucially, it overlooks some of Biden’s experience as Vice President in the Obama administration, where he and others often clashed with Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And it overlooks the marginal role Israel has played in Sanders’ long career compared to other foreign policy issues (and certainly domestic ones).
WATCH: 47th Vice President of the United States and Democratic Presidential Candidate @JoeBiden addresses #AIPAC2020.#AIPACProud pic.twitter.com/E6qsZ8tne5
— AIPAC (@AIPAC) March 1, 2020
And, given recent developments in Israeli politics and U.S. policy toward the Jewish state under Trump, the past may not serve as an especially informative prologue; President Joe Biden could turn out to be a better president on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than many progressives think.
This is not to say that Biden’s positions and attitudes towards Israel are much more favorable than Sanders’. He clearly has an affinity for the country and is sympathetic to its security concerns. For anyone who believes in America applying pressure on Israel to stop entrenching itself in the occupied territories, Biden is not the ideal candidate. At certain points in his career, Biden acted as a shield for Israel during trying times for the relationship; as VP, where he frequently advocated a “no daylight” approach, which ran against the instincts of President Obama and other members of the administration.
Still, Biden did not always have an easy time with Israel. In a trip in 2010, the Vice President and his team were caught by surprise when Israel announced new construction in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood in East Jerusalem. While Biden perhaps did not support as strong a reaction to Israeli provocations as others, the feeling of betrayal was real, and Israel did little to repair ties.
By 2016, Biden was already speaking of “the steady and systematic expansion of settlements, the legalization of outposts, land seizures” and how “they’re moving us and more importantly they’re moving Israel in the wrong direction.” In his video address to AIPAC this year, Biden condemned Israel’s settlement construction and democratic backsliding, and warned that it was losing support among young people in the U.S.
In fact, Biden’s strong personal connection to Israel may propel him to save Israel from itself. Unlike Senator Sanders, whose interest in U.S. foreign policy is focused on reducing American entanglements abroad, especially where he believe it’s done grievous harm (such as Latin America), Biden sees a role for an active America in defending its interests, including the stability and democratic character of its allies.
If elected, Biden or Sanders would inherit an American policy towards Israel they do not believe in: American support for annexation of settlements and punishment for the Palestinians. While a President Sanders may take a tougher rhetorical line and even place conditions on military aid to Israel, his record as a politician suggests he does not see Israel as an especially high priority. After extricating the U.S. from complicity in Israeli policies, will Sanders take a leadership role in ending the conflict? Will he have the credibility to do so?
But Biden comes with a long history of support for Israel, but also with the knowledge that it’s headed on a path toward self-harm and, perhaps, the will to do something to stop it.
Abe Silberstein is a freelance commentator on Israeli politics and U.S.-Israel relations. His work has previously been published in the New York Times, Haaretz, +972 Magazine and the Forward.