Imagine if, at a high profile pro-Israel event, before an audience of thousands, a candidate for the presidency of the United States set out a definitive position on a vital issue only to dramatically backtrack immediately afterwards. He would be savaged, you’d think, his credibility shredded.
In fact, however, you have no need to imagine such a scenario. It actually happened.
On Wednesday, June 4, 2008, would-be president Barack Obama told AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) that “Jerusalem must remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.” This was a hugely significant assertion of support for Israel’s internationally unrecognized establishment of sovereignty throughout the city in the wake of the 1967 war, a radical departure from traditional US policy, and a sensationally time-sensitive declaration from a candidate who had just secured the Democratic nomination.
And then Obama walked it back. Amid an outcry from the Palestinians and many others at his prejudgment of one of the most sensitive issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, candidate Obama quickly made clear that he had not meant what he said. “As a practical matter, it would be very difficult to execute” a division of Jerusalem, he told CNN the next day. But, he elaborated, “obviously, it’s going to be up to the parties to negotiate a range of these issues. And Jerusalem will be part of those negotiations.” Put another way: Forget what I told AIPAC. The two sides are going to have to negotiate the fate of Jerusalem. And never mind what I said about it remaining undivided under Israeli rule.
Two presidential terms later, many pro-Israel Obama critics — of whom there is no shortage — have never forgiven him for the shift.
And yet, on Monday night at AIPAC’s latest annual conference, another candidate for the presidency of the United States issued an Obama-style dramatic declaration on a central policy, and then reversed himself — within minutes, in the very same speech. And he was applauded, both times.
Early in his address at the Verizon Center, packed with 18,000 AIPAC delegates, Donald Trump promised that his “number one priority” — nothing less — “is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” The audience clapped and cheered. But then, all of six minutes later, he contradicted himself. Far from dismantling the nuclear deal so strongly opposed by AIPAC over recent months, candidate Trump now said he would merely “enforce the terms of the previous deal to hold Iran totally accountable. And we will enforce it like you’ve never seen a contract enforced before, folks, believe me.” Unlike Obama, Trump was able to slide right through the reversal; he was applauded again.
Plainly, much of this AIPAC crowd — to the evident surprise of the lobby’s own leaders, who had been worried that the divisive, minority-bashing, rabble-rousing candidate would get a rude reception from a Jewish audience — was so enamored by Trump’s endless stream of “I love Israel” hyperbole as to stand and cheer most anything he said. And to hell with the evidence he had just provided that he should not be taken at his word.
And plainly, too, Trump knew better than AIPAC’s own leadership that he could say pretty much anything to many in this audience and get away with it, as long as it was couched in terms ridiculing and berating the Obama administration. AIPAC can only survive as an effective lobby if it is credibly regarded as bipartisan, as dedicated to strengthening the US-Israel relationship no matter who is running America. The commitment to bipartisanship is a central theme of any and every AIPAC gathering. Showman Trump blew it away in minutes — and proved that, for many of those 18,000, the invitation to stand and cheer the rejection of eight years of perceived hostility to Israel by the Obama administration easily outweighed the bipartisan imperative.
Obama and Hillary Clinton have “treated Israel very, very badly,” said Trump. “With President Obama in his final year — yay!,” said Trump. “He may be the worst thing to ever happen to Israel,” said Trump. And much of the crowd clapped and cheered each time.
The next morning, AIPAC’s leaders admonished Trump for his remarks, with its president, Lillian Pinkus, expressing “great offense” at attacks “levied against the president of the United States of America from our stage.” She also slammed her own conference’s participants: “We are disappointed that so many people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with or condone,” she said.
The damage, though, had been done — and further proof provided of the dumbing-down of American politics. Trump, with his soapbox rhetoric, had steamrollered to victory with what was presumed to be a very different type of audience than at his usual rallies — an audience, after all, from a minority group; an audience that had not gathered principally for Trump, but to hear all the candidates, and dozens of other speakers, and grapple with all manner of nuanced subject matter at a highly sophisticated, three-day conference.
Remarkably, on the very same day that Trump was trampling gleefully over AIPAC’s commitment to bipartisanship, the only presidential candidate to have skipped the conference was demonstrating that dumbing-down is not confined to one side of the US political spectrum.
Ex-kibbutz volunteer Bernie Sanders had rejected AIPAC’s invitation to speak at almost the eleventh hour, on the Friday afternoon before the Sunday conference opening. He claimed, in his belated letter of regret, that he “would very much have enjoyed” speaking at the conference, but that campaign commitments prevented him from doing so.
He also claimed that “issues impacting Israel and the Middle East are of the utmost importance to me, to our country and to the world.”
Yet the remarks he prepared on the subject betrayed an approach so superficial as to raise questions about the seriousness of his entire campaign. For if a candidate who is Jewish, who has spent time in Israel, and who should be well-equipped to understand this subject matter, can set out so under-informed an approach, what does that say about the rest of his policies? His was a speech that embodied so much of what passes for intelligent criticism of Israel by people who assert that they are its friends, but which underlines the extent to which our reality has been misreported, misrepresented and misunderstood, including by people who owe it to themselves and to us to look a little more closely.
Sanders lambasted Israel for its “bombing of hospitals, schools and refugee camps” in the 2014 war with Hamas — conjuring up an image of Israeli aggressors callously and deliberately focusing on civilian targets with no consideration for the innocents caught in its barrage of fire. Either he doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, that Israel went to great lengths to avoid harming civilians even as it battled to thwart the attacks on its people, and that Hamas routinely emplaces its rockets and tunnels near those hospitals, schools and refugee camps.
Sanders castigated what he called Israel’s “disproportionate responses to being attacked” — apparently determining what is proportionate on the basis of the death toll, evidently unaware of how many of the Gaza dead were Hamas gunmen, fighting in and out of uniform, and failing to internalize the cynical extent to which Hamas turns Gaza’s civilians into the human shields for its ongoing, strategic, avowed effort to destroy Israel. Sanders showed himself, too, as one of those ill-informed critics who would be much more supportive of Israel if only more of us were dying: Had Iron Dome not intercepted so many of Hamas’s thousands of rockets, had Israeli forces not managed to trace and destroy so many of the terror tunnels Hamas had dug under the border, and had many more Israelis thus been killed, presumably Bernie Sanders would not have considered Israel’s efforts to keep its people safe quite so disproportionate.
In perhaps the most infantile of his remarks, Sanders demanded an end to the “economic blockade of Gaza,” while at the same time asserting Israelis’ “right to live in peace and security.” Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip is intended to prevent Hamas from importing more of the weaponry it relentlessly uses in its goal of killing Israelis and destroying Israel — that is, in its goal of ensuring Israelis cannot live in peace and security. If Gaza was not run by Hamas, or if Hamas abandoned its stated goal of destroying Israel, there would be no need for the blockade.
There is undoubtedly more that Israel could do to help create better prospects for progress toward resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict. For a start, it could halt building in settlements in West Bank areas that it does not envisage retaining under a permanent accord — a move that would bolster moderates on the Palestinian side, boost Israel’s international credibility as a peace-seeker, and serve Israel’s vital, declared self-interest in avoiding a descent into a single, bi-national state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. But an Israel capitulating to terrorism, an Israel failing to stop rocket fire, an Israel allowing Hamas to import weapons at will, would not be helping to resolve the Palestinian conflict. It would be committing national suicide.
A well-informed US president — familiar with all the nuances and complexities of the conflict, clear-eyed about the pernicious mis-education of generations of Palestinians to hate Israel, ready to help marginalize extremism — has a crucial role to play in advancing the chances of eventual progress. Candidate Sanders, in a speech that betrayed no awareness of the fact that Israel, so strong and yet so potentially vulnerable if it makes short-sighted decisions in our threatening and unpredictable region, showed himself incapable of filling any such role.
Between Trump abusing his hosts’ platform and tickling the tummies of a purring audience that allowed itself to be so easily seduced, and Sanders showing himself incapable of mustering the intellectual rigor to constructively weigh in on Israel, these are dumb days indeed where Israel is concerned in the US presidential campaign.
I personally don’t doubt that Donald Trump is a gut supporter of Israel. But I would be very wary of the promises he makes.
I personally don’t doubt that Bernie Sanders sees himself as a friend of Israel. But I don’t think he’s made a serious effort to understand the challenges it faces.
America is choosing a president, electing the leader of the free world, at a time when the very act of living is under concerted attack by cunning, potent, evil forces. Writing from Jerusalem, having just flown home from AIPAC shocked and dispirited, all I can hope is that America chooses wisely.