Warren, Sanders, Bloomberg and Buttigieg — Israel’s Standing in Today’s Democratic Party
Elizabeth Warren has run out of steam, danken gott (thank God), her professorial persona full of numbers that she equates with ethics failing to resonate with Iowa or New Hampshire voters, and one of her last acts being to diss the Jews by bumping AIPAC off her calendar. So now the two leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination — Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg — are both from the “progressive” wing of the party, Buttigieg is Ivy progressive, which comes with its own set of signifiers, some of them extreme, but he is nothing like Sanders. If Sanders is the convention’s designee we will be faced with a politician who is as close to having been a “red” as when, in 1948, the country had the option of Henry Wallace as candidate for president on the Progressive Party slate and of several comrades running for Congress — and lower still.
Now 78 and nearing 79, Sanders was too young to be a party member and, in any case, too rambunctious. But he volunteered later on at an extremely left-wing Israeli kibbutz, (Sha’ar HaAmakim, Gateway to the Valleys, whose founder served time in jail for spying for the Soviets) accepted its ideological discipline and more or less believed (and believes) in every social diktat it propounded, mutated to American circumstances. He has also garnished the encomia of the three out of four first-term representatives in Congress who are penitentially pro-Palestinian, the penitential part meaning that they de facto exclude Israelis from any claim to empathy. One of these representatives, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, may challenge my old student Chuck Schumer for his senate seat in 2022. After all, he is the Democratic minority leader — a big get if she could make it — and a real Zionist.
Very few Democrats willingly self-identify as real Zionists now. Something of a panic attends mention of Israel among them: it is a sign that the party’s center of gravity has moved very far to the left, most easily on foreign affairs. Case in point: Bernie and Pete (and probably others) have decided not to attend the Spring conference of AIPAC, the largest pro-Israel organization operating out of and in Washington, a lobby and grass roots coalition with lots of cash and also feet, that is associated, fairly and not, in the media coverage of its endeavors, with the current government of Israel.
The polls now indicate (although slightly) that the current government is not long for this world — that not Netanyahu will be in power but his rival Benny Gantz. And American liberals, Sanders and Buttigieg supporters alike, will breathe sighs of relief. But they will, in those same breaths, be entering a realm of cognitive dissonance, because their nominal Israeli political allies’ stance on the Palestinian question is hardly different from their nominal Israeli political enemies’.
This is a somewhat pertinent fact for Sanders — but he’s an ideologue, and, like all ideologues, he’ll retreat into abstractions in the presence of unwanted facts. But it’s an especially pertinent fact for Buttigieg because, as he showed at last years’ conference of J-Street, the leading left-wing American Jewish alignment trying to influence Israeli policy towards the Palestinians, he belongs to the cohort of establishmentarian Progressives who see the Palestinian-Israeli issue along fundamentally rationalist lines, as a factually tractable conflict dependent on practical compromises, for example a settlement freeze. The settlement issue has been this cohort’s major one — the supposed barrier to a lasting peace — never mind the fact that Netanyahu’s government imposed a freeze in 2010 to no result. If Gantz wins, and the rhetorical specter of Netanyahu disappears, American Democrats who support Israel are going to have to face the fact that the Palestinian issue is more entrenched than they’ve given themselves the luxury to believe.
Here is an entrenched reality. Most Israelis, even some Israeli Arabs, are drained — drained dry — by the intractability of the Palestinian leadership. And with plenty of reason. The plain fact is that the Palestinians have lost all of the armed battles, all, from 1948 to the day before yesterday, but there are almost no political Palestinians who concede the reasonability of the proposals made by Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, most of which had been accepted by US officialdom as reasonable — and better.
Here is another entrenched reality: that Israel is abutted by two corrupt governments with marginal holds over their populations, Syria and Lebanon; and that in Lebanon, the weakness of the central government allows Iranian-backed terrorists the nominal run of the place. A Palestinian state governed by the weak and institutionally corroded PLO will not be able to stop terrorists from infiltrating the West Bank…and where does that leave Israel and the Israeli citizens the government is sworn to protect?
Here is a third reality, equally entrenched: there is no American ally whose bona fides are so consistently under fire than Israel’s. (Not, for example, Turkey which absorbs more American cash than Israel and is in continuous war with the Kurds.) By ostensibly reasonable, empirical folks, no less, and folks who purport to be friends, but who, as Aiden Pink has written in the Tower, and Tony Badran in Tablet, consistently put Israelis (and Palestinians, in fact) in the position of being pawns in an international schema of “peace” that has almost nothing to do with conditions on the ground … namely the institutional implausibility of the PLO and the material security consequences to Israel of ceding the PLO as it’s now established its own state to run. As Pink writes, “the sooner American Jews become less obsessed over what Israel could be, and accept it for what it is — the culmination of a dream shared in the abstract but contentious when it comes to specifics; an imperfect state, but a sovereign state nonetheless; a state that will accept help when it needs it, but has long since earned the right to make its own choices in pursuit of prosperity, peace and security — the sooner this happens, the sooner we can focus on meeting our own existential challenges.”
Do either of the Democratic front-runners have the empirical chops and the intellectual honesty to face up to these facts? Bernie doesn’t have empirical chops, and he doesn’t pretend to; he’s an ideologue, for better or worse. What about Mayor Pete?
I’m not sure. I can only share, in the welter that is the debate about the Indiana Mayor — too much a Boy Scout? Too much a technocrat? A military moderate from the Midwest? A fixer-of-potholes who can fix America? — my own fleeting impression from last year. I was with friends at the Hamptons mid-August and they were going to a Pete Buttigieg fund-raiser. They shamed me into going … at the price of $1,800. (That shows you how not smart I am.) Buttigieg spoke for about half an hour, no surprises. A lot of jokes about Trump, some funny, some not. He speaks without stumbling and without grammatical mistakes; and, unlike Warren who is almost grammatically perfect, he didn’t weigh down his recitation with numbers. And then Pete’s fluid and fluent speech was over. A long flank from the audience adored him for another half hour, part of a line which I joined. Eventually I came up at bat, to ask my question, or rather to make my points, about Israel.
I assumed he was likely to recognize my name from Harvard (I was a popular teacher), from The New Republic (which was a popular journal for independent liberal intellectuals, though not any more). I’m not sure whether he did or didn’t. I know that he listened without seeming to hear, and responded without seeming to address the content of what I’d said. A politician’s handicap at the end of a long day? Sure. But it’s stayed with me, if only because it increasingly taps into a bigger impression, an initially inchoate but now more definite one. Mayor Pete—gay, solid, military, apparently pragmatic — makes his listeners feel good to be listening to him. But when all is said and done, there’s not much content behind his words that isn’t a pre-approved Democratic talking point. He’s not Bernie, to be sure. But he’s a progressive — not a Liberal — institutionalist, and, when push comes to shove, he’ll go with the flow. And the flow right now among the Democrats — Bibi or no Bibi, Gantz or no Gantz — is not toward an appreciation of Israeli realities.
But there is Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota who made a stunning showing in New Hampshire, certainly in amassing about as many votes as Joe Biden and haughty Elizabeth Warren. And there is Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York who might just be the single most financial success of his generation. Both of them are Zionists … even if it’s no longer fashionable to call yourself one. Still, Klobuchar has a voting record in the Senate and, despite having a sizable Arab and Muslim population in her state, she has voted for Israel, spoke for Israel and spoken against terror and its fans. Bloomberg makes no bones about his standing and feelings for Israel. His mother was Massachusetts chair of Hadassah. He has also gone back and forth to Israel, in treacherous times especially. These two are people of the center. We’ll see what we shall see.
Martin Peretz was editor-in-chief of The New Republic from 1974 to 2013.