Today, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – the nation’s most influential pro-Israel organization – commenced its annual conference and all but one of the presidential candidates are scheduled to address the gathered partisans. Ironically, the sole absentee will be the first major Jewish presidential candidate and a former volunteer at a Kibbutz to boot. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders offered to address AIPAC via satellite but was rebuffed. As recently as 2012, however, both Republican candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich were allowed to speak remotely and, this year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will address the audience from Jerusalem. Many suspect that Sanders’ less than unconditional support for Israel was the actual reason for AIPAC’s rejection of his proposal. AIPAC members are decidedly more hawkish on Israel than many American Jews and the leftist Sanders might shock the audience by expressing support for Palestinian rights.
In that regard, Sanders stands apart from the rest of the field – Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and John Kasich – whom compete in slavish praise of the State of Israel. That tone was set by Clinton, the first presidential aspirant to speak on opening day. Clinton offered the usual bromides about supporting Israel and arming the Israel Defense Forces before moving on to take a swipe at her likely Republican opponent Donald Trump.
On Israel, Trump has adopted an uncharacteristic stance of eschewing demagogic pandering and put forth the idea of American “neutrality” between Israel and the Palestinians. Trump still claims he’s very pro-Israel, but reasons that a neutral arbiter is more likely to strike a deal between two feuding factions. For all that, Trump has been attacked as anti-Israel by his Republican rivals and now Clinton as well. It is not surprising that GOP candidates would condemn any position short of unabashed favoritism toward Israel, but it is noteworthy that the candidate seeking the Democratic nomination and trying to entice voters away from her leftist rival would also rebuke an innocuous position which is also the (ostensible) posture of the U.S. government. American presidents have long claimed to act as an “honest broker,” a position that is favored by most Americans. Moreover, less than a fifth of Democrats support taking Israel’s side.
Clinton’s closing remarks were even more tone deaf toward her voting base when she took aim at BDS; boycott, divestment and sanctions. BDS is a grass-roots movement to hold Israel accountable to international law and bring an end to a near half-century of occupation. Recent polls show that 49% of Democrats support economic sanctions or other punitive measures in order to compel Israel to cease illegal settlement construction on expropriated Palestinian land (37% of Americans support sanctions or “more serious action.”). Among young Americans in general, support for Palestinian rights and opposition to Israeli policies is even more pronounced. (During Israel’s summer 2014 war against Gaza, Americans between 18-and-29 disapproved of Israel’s war by a 2:1 margin.)
Clinton is losing the youth vote and the more liberal quarters of the Democratic party to Sanders, but apparently thought her appeal to combat BDS would be a stirring cry among the very voters most supportive of BDS. Clinton called on an imagined youth movement “on the front lines” of the anti-BDS campaign to “stay strong” and “don’t let anyone silence you, bully you or try to shut down debate.” In fact, BDS is a popular movement on many college campuses with increasing success in passing university divestment measures, an anti-BDS conference was recently organized by an octogenarian, and it is pro-Palestinian solidarity activists who face underhanded efforts to silence them; as documented in a recent report by Palestine Legal.
Clinton’s script, however, was par for the course in American presidential politics: Palestinian basic rights count for very little and candidates speak of Israel as if penning a letter to their beloved. This imbalance can be illustrated in a simple counting game: Clinton mentioned Palestinian three times (zero for Palestine) and Israel or Israelis seventy-four times.