The still-crowded 2020 Democratic presidential field proved to be a godsend for the left-wing J Street lobby. It gained attention for its annual conference this week due to the presence of five presidential candidates. But the dynamic of the event didn’t give a boost to its supposed “pro-Israel, pro-peace” agenda. To the contrary, the tenor of the coverage of the event showed that the group had achieved a very different goal. That was to be a magnet for opponents of the Jewish state, as it became clear that the main objective of the vote seekers was to avoid being outflanked on the left and to therefore outdo each other in vowing support for measures designed not merely to pressure Israel, but to cripple it and help its foes.
The winner of this competition to be tough on Israel was Sen. Bernie Sanders. The Vermont Socialist has always used his Jewish identity and his stay on a kibbutz more than half a century ago as a license to attack Israel with impunity. While continuing to express support for Israel’s right to exist, he also holds a position that its leaders must be brought to heel in such a manner as to force not just the creation of a Palestinian state alongside it, but to hamstring its right to self-defense.
Even more damaging is his consistent support for the idea that the independent Palestinian state in all but name that already exists in Gaza should be the beneficiary of a new “even-handed” U.S. stand on the Middle East. In the past, that has meant doing his best to organize support in Congress for opposition to the international isolation of the Hamas-run enclave and to undermine Israel’s efforts to defend its people against the terrorists who govern the Strip.
But the main headline that came out of the J Street conference concerned Sanders’s latest proposal, in which he went one step beyond his previous threats to cut U.S. aid to Israel. With Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg already echoing that line, Sanders outstripped them by saying that some of the billions that America gives to Israel should be diverted to Gaza.
The context for this astounding suggestion is that Sanders has repeatedly exaggerated and distorted the humanitarian situation there. He has also downplayed or ignored Israel’s role in alleviating the plight of its people and refused to see that the party responsible for any suffering is Hamas.
Though conditions in Gaza are far from pleasant, the senator’s effort to depict it as an unmitigated disaster also distorts the truth.
The blockade of the Gaza Strip is enforced by Israel and Egypt for the very good reason that doing so helps to limit the ability of the terrorists running it from importing weapons and military supplies, as well as exporting violence. Yet Sanders opposes that necessary measure in favor of throwing its borders open, and endangering the lives of both Jews and Arabs. Gaza’s people are oppressed by their Islamist overlords and pay the price for being the willing or unwilling accomplices of an outlaw regime whose aim remains Israel’s destruction.
However, they are neither starving nor short of medical supplies because Israel allows convoys of such goods in every day. It also supplies Gazans with what is estimated to be half of its fuel and electricity. Israel doesn’t oppress Gaza, from which it withdrew every soldier, settler and settlement in 2005 in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s vain gesture towards advancing peace. And no amount of humanitarian rhetoric or slander of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “racist” can disguise the disingenuous nature of this argument.
To throw open Gaza in the manner that Sanders desires would be a grave threat to the security of the region.
But to start pouring billions of dollars into Gaza, where there are no effective checks on Hamas’s power or its ability to divert the vast sums that have already been given to organizations operating there into projects that bolster its military establishment—as opposed to helping its people—would be a scandal with unknowable consequences. Indeed, such a policy would not only be a blow to the security of Israel and Egypt, but could prove to be a death sentence to Hamas’s Fatah rivals that run the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. The mere suggestion of such a travesty should prompt questions as to whether Sanders and his supporters—among whom are counted notorious pro-BDS anti-Semites such as Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and activist Linda Sarsour—want not just a Palestinian state, but a Hamas state in the West Bank as well as Gaza.
Sanders was also deliberately misrepresenting the nature of U.S. aid to Israel in such a way as to validate some of the anti-Semitic slurs put about by his anti-Semitic congressional supporters concerning Jews and money.
As a veteran member of Congress, Sanders knows that the $3.8 billion that goes to Israel as military aid is not a case of Washington sending “the Benjamins” to Netanyahu, as Omar has put it. Rather, it’s merely a line of credit that allows Israel to purchase military equipment from American manufacturers and cannot be spent in Israel. U.S. aid to Israel is not so much a boon to Israel’s economy, as its detractors allege, as it is a form of federal relief for American companies. Switching some of this money to Gaza won’t feed a single Palestinian, but it could empower Hamas to kill more Jews.
In a Democratic Party where presidential candidates were not intimidated by the BDS movement, Sanders’s suggestion would have brought down on him bitter condemnation from his competitors, as well as the supposedly “pro-Israel” organization that provided him the forum to make these comments. But instead, there were only crickets, even from candidates like Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who is branded as a moderate on the issue because she declined to endorse aid cuts to Israel even as she criticized Netanyahu.
While this discussion did nothing to advance the cause of peace or even the betterment of the Palestinian people, it did show that in the race to the left of the Democratic Party, the ultimate loser isn’t one of the candidates, but the truth.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.