How America’s First Jewish President Could Be Tougher on Israel Than His Predecessors

Bernie Sanders, if he wins the White House, could be the first U.S. leader in more than 40 years to declare Jewish settlements illegal.

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to the media following a closed-door briefing on Iran at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on May 21, 2019.
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to the media following a closed-door briefing on Iran at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on May 21, 2019. Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

If Bernie Sanders were elected president, he would not only become the first Jew to lead the White House. He would likely become the first U.S. leader in more than forty years to declare Israel’s construction of Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands illegal.

Sanders’s stance on Israeli settlements may be largely consistent with international law, scores of U.N. Security Council resolutions, and the policies of some past U.S. administrations. But it marks a sharp rhetorical departure from previous U.S. presidents who have sidestepped questions about the legality of Israel’s decades-long drive to build Jewish settlements on Arab lands even as they criticized them as an illegitimate obstacle to peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

When it comes to the politically fraught question of Middle East diplomacy, Sanders has shown a willingness to puncture political taboos. The 78-year-old Vermont senator, who lived in an Israeli kibbutz in the early 1960s, frequently refers to Israel as an “occupying power”—a moniker Israel’s government and its allies in the White House and Congress consider a slur. He has made clear that he would be prepared to condition the $3.8 billion in annual U.S. military aid to Israel on its treatment of Palestinians, a position that is out of step with Republicans and the Democratic congressional leadership. Sanders referred to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in December 2019 as a “racist.”

On Sunday, Sanders announced that he would not attend the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, a traditional venue for Democratic and Republican political candidates, expressing concern about the platform it “provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.” The remarks drew a barrage of criticism from Jewish American organizations and commentators, who characterized it as an “odious,” “offensive” “smear.”

The success of Sanders’s candidacy—he has emerged as the Democratic front-runner since his primary victory in Nevada—has opened the possibility of a dramatically different approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further heightened divisions between the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic Party. It would certainly mark a fundamental shift from the policies of the Trump administration. “It’s very hard to say at this point that Senator Sanders falls within the parameters of traditional U.S. foreign policy,” said David Harris, the CEO of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). “I have little doubt that Sanders’s foreign policy in the Middle East would look very different from the Trump foreign policy.”

It remains too early to say what impact Sanders’s approach to the Middle East will have on his electoral prospects. President Donald Trump is certain to portray Sanders as hostile to Israel, whose current government enjoys unfettered support from Trump’s base of Christian evangelicals and conservative Jewish voters. But Sanders, or any of his Democratic competitors, should have little trouble securing the majority of Jewish votes in the United States, according to Halie Soifer, the executive director of Jewish Democratic Council of America.

“While there is not one consensus candidate among Jewish voters, an overwhelming majority of Jewish voters would support any Democratic candidate in general election against Donald Trump,” she said.

Critics warn that a Sanders presidency would upend decades of bipartisan support for Israel, undermining relations with America’s closest ally in the Middle East and jeopardizing Israel’s security. They fear it would also give a moral boost to some of Israel’s most implacable critics, including prominent supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour and Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. Some fear a Sanders presidency would exacerbate a split in the Democratic Party on Israel and alienate some Jewish voters in the Democratic camp, which Republicans would capitalize on. In an effort to distance himself from Sanders, fellow presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg pledged last month during an address at a Jewish center in Miami that he would “always have Israel’s back” and would “never impose conditions on our military aid, including missile defense—no matter who is prime minister.”

Jewish American leaders, meanwhile, are growing increasingly alarmed by doubts about the depths of Sanders’s commitment to Israel’s security, as well as the growing influence of Israel’s sharpest critics among his supporters. They also worry that any move by a President Sanders to apply economic pressure on Israel would trigger tension with any Israeli leader and would make it harder for the country to pursue peace.

A cardinal rule of Middle East policy, Harris said, is that for any Israeli leader to “take risks for peace,” he or she will “need to have confidence in the American administration in power at the time. If there is no confidence, the likelihood of taking those risks diminishes.”

But to his supporters, Sanders’s positions on Jewish settlements, Israel’s status as an occupying power, and his calls to leverage U.S. financial support for political concessions would simply mark a return to long-standing American principles, which have been upended by the Trump administration, reversing decades of U.S. foreign policy by declaring settlements as legal. It is Netanyahu, they say, who has broken with the bipartisan tradition by aligning his government so closely to Trump and the Republican Party.

“I think Bernie is in many ways trying to set American policy back on track,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a longtime member of the Palestine Liberation Organization. His willingness to call Israel out on its legal obligations marks “a really badly needed corrective on the slippery slope of American political discourse and positions, which have been distorted in the last decades.”

In the past, she said, “there wasn’t even a question that the settlements were illegal: It was taken for granted. It was one of the basic foundations of American policy, even though there were attempts to play around with the language.”

For decades, U.S. presidents have sought to avoid the I-word, fearing it would needlessly antagonize Israel. Even President Jimmy Carter—perhaps the most pro-Palestinian occupant of the White House in 50 years—steered clear of using the word, though he did make it clear that Israel’s construction of Jewish settlements on land inhabited by Arabs before the 1967 Arab-Israeli War was “contrary to the Geneva Convention, that occupied territories should not be changed by the establishment of permanent settlements by the occupying power.”

“The use of ‘illegal’ was clearly an official expression of Carter administration policy, even if Carter didn’t shout out the word in a speech,” according to Lara Friedman, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. But Carter’s administration likely went further than any other U.S. administration in asserting the illegality of settlements.

Friedman, who compiled a detailed modern history of presidential positions on settlements, said it was President Ronald Reagan who first proposed a freeze on new settlements in an effort to promote peace. Reagan, however, never characterized them as illegal. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama issued calls for an end to Israel’s occupation of Arab lands seized since 1967—but didn’t call them illegal.

Obama largely blocked efforts in the U.N. Security Council to condemn Israeli settlements until his final weeks in office, when the United States abstained on a resolution denouncing Israel’s building policy. Instead, Obama and his national security team referred to Israel’s settlements as “illegitimate.”

But any ambiguity over the U.S. position on settlements ended with the Trump administration. In November 2019, Pompeo said the United States does not recognize Israeli settlements as a violation of international law, reversing four decades of U.S. policy. And the president’s so-called Middle East peace plan would allow hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers to remain permanently on the land they currently occupy.

Sanders has called for a “fundamental change” to the U.S. relationship with Israel, one that would strike a greater balance between Palestinian rights and Israeli security needs. For starters, Sanders said, he would consider redirecting some $3.8 billion in military aid to Israel to aiding Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. The 1.8 million people in Gaza– which is administered by the militant group Hamas — are enduring one of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. While Sanders has not personally embraced the boycott movement against Israel, he opposes penalizing those who do, saying they have a constitutional right to protest.

Sanders is not the first American political leader to suggest the United States use its financial largesse to exact concessions from Israel.

Past Republican presidents, including Dwight D. Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush, have used U.S. financial aid as a lever to influence Israel’s behavior. During the Suez Canal crisis, Eisenhower threatened to cut aid to Israel if it didn’t withdraw its forces from the Sinai Peninsula. Bush used the threat of cuts in U.S. assistance to keep the peace process on track. In 1992, Bush’s secretary of state, James Baker, bluntly threatened to withhold $10 billion in loan guarantees to help Israel resettle Jews from the Soviet Union if it continued to expand settlement.

That may be true, AJC’s Harris noted, but it is hard to compare Sanders to the elder Bush. “Whatever differences there were over loan guarantees, President George H.W. convinced the Israelis he had a spine and understood that American leadership required not just soft power but a willingness to use hard power,” Harris said.

Sanders’s positions on the Middle East have made him something of an outlier among the Democratic Party’s congressional leadership, which supported legislation recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and has shown no desire to condition security assistance to Israel.

But his views have been gaining currency among the party’s base and party progressives, who see parallels between the Palestinians’ struggle for equality and human rights and the struggles of racial minorities and working Americans in the United States.

In a speech at the University of New Hampshire on the eve of that state’s Democratic primary, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez drew applause when she noted Sanders’s support for Palestinians. “When we look at what happened in that debate stage, who brings up Palestine? Senator Bernie Sanders,” she said.

Many Democrats also harbor deep resentment against Netanyahu, who is seen as having disrespected Obama by delivering a barbed attack on his signature foreign-policy initiative—the Iran nuclear deal—before the U.S. Congress at a critical stage in the negotiations.

Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland, said the party’s rank and file have been moving closer to Sanders. Telhami said polls for decades have shown that most Democratic voters favor a tougher approach to Israel, including the use of sanctions, in response to its settlement policy.

In a 2018 poll conducted by Telhami, a majority of Democratic voters—56 percent—favored penalizing Israel if it continued to build Jewish settlements. That was up from 47 percent in 2014. “In terms of public opinion, there is no question there has been a fundamental change,” he said.

Democratic leaders in Congress, Telhami said, have been out of step with their constituents, who overwhelmingly support tougher action against Israel over its settlement policy. “Bernie’s rise has proven that voters are willing to reward a politician who was in harmony with their views on Israel,” he said.

Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggested that a President Sanders would “probably be the first president to actually align his campaign rhetoric on Israel with his actual behavior as president.” But Miller said he would have to carefully weigh the costs of imposing consequences on Israel if it persists in settlement activities.

“Beyond setting a new moral framework for the relationship, what kind of vinegar would Bernie Sanders apply?” Miller said. “Fighting with Israel for any American president only makes sense if you can in fact achieve something for the fight.”

Miller said he could see Sanders undertaking a number of changes that could “change the mood music” in Washington without resulting in a major confrontation with Israel. For instance, he said, he could envision the United States reengaging with Iran diplomatically, reestablishing a Palestinian office in Washington, and restoring funding the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which provides education and other basic services to more than 5 million Palestinian refugees spread across the Middle East.

“He could make all kinds of adjustments that would bring American policy back in line with previous administrations without getting into the kinds of fights that would prove distracting to other policy priorities,” Miller said.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch