Michael Bloomberg had his chance. During the Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina this week, he had the perfect opportunity to directly answer Bernie Sanders’ smears of Israel and AIPAC. Sanders had been challenged by one of the moderators to account for his outrageous attack on the pro-Israel lobby as a platform for “bigotry” and asked whether he would move the U.S. embassy to the Jewish state back to Tel Aviv from the country’s capital of Jerusalem, where President Donald Trump had moved it in May 2018.
Sanders ignored the chance to substantiate his fallacious attack on AIPAC, but then doubled down on the canard that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was a “reactionary racist,” a line that earned him applause from an audience that was otherwise not very friendly to him. The Vermont senator then hinted that keeping the embassy in place would be a card he would play in order to get Israeli concessions in some theoretical negotiation with the Palestinians.
At that point, CBS correspondent Major Garrett turned to Bloomberg, the one candidate on stage who has made the greatest effort to put himself forward as a pro-Israel alternative to Sanders.
What should have followed was an evisceration of Sanders’s stands on Israel. It was the moment pro-Israel Democrats—many of whom would be heading to Washington in a few days to attend the AIPAC conference that Sanders had spurned and which Bloomberg, alone of the presidential candidates, would address—had been waiting for.
Instead, what they got was a bumbling, stumbling, confused and somewhat inaccurate and inarticulate response that failed to establish why Sanders was wrong about AIPAC, Jerusalem or the peace process:
“Well, the battle has been going on for a long time in the Middle East, whether it’s the Arabs versus the Persians, the Shias versus the Sunnis, the Jews in Israel and the Palestinians, it’s only gone on for 40 or 50 years.”
Number one, you can’t move the embassy back. We should not have done it without getting something from the Israeli government. But it was done, and you’re going to have to leave it there.
Number two, only solution here is a two-state solution. The Palestinians have to be accommodated. The real problem here is you have two groups of people, both who think God gave them the same piece of land. And the answer is to obviously split it up, leave the Israeli borders where they are, try to push them to pull back some of those extra over the—on the other side of the wall, where they’ve built these new communities, which they should not have done that, pull it back.”
Surely, someone as smart as Bloomberg should know the Arab-Israeli conflict goes back further than 40 or 50 years, which makes it seem, as Israel’s critics would have it, that history began in 1967 when Israel came into possession of the West Bank, as well as unifying Jerusalem, during the Six-Day War. Nor was his opposition to the embassy move with a grudging acknowledgment that it couldn’t be moved back an adequate answer to Sanders. And as for his description of the standoff with the Palestinians, suffice it to say that his statement (which seemed to imply that he wished to push Israel back to the 1967 lines and evict hundreds of thousands of Jews from their homes in order to) wouldn’t even pass as an answer on a high school history test.
Instead, it was one more piece of evidence that for all of his wealth and managerial acumen, Bloomberg isn’t ready for prime time as a presidential candidate.
It also summed up the basic problem facing AIPAC. An organization whose raison d’être is creating a bipartisan coalition behind Israel needs the Democrats to be as ardent to the cause of the alliance as Republicans have become. At a time when Trump has embraced his role as the most pro-Israel president in history, AIPAC needs a Democratic champion to match him in enthusiasm, even if he or she wouldn’t necessarily espouse the exact same policies or be as friendly to Netanyahu.
But Bloomberg can’t fill that role. It’s not just that he clearly lacks the political chops to be a successful presidential candidate. The only real impact the hundreds of millions of dollars he’s spent seems to have had is make it less likely that one of the other supposed moderates in the field, such as former Vice President Joe Biden, will be able to beat Sanders.
In a Democratic race with two Jews running, there is only one who speaks with passion and conviction about Israel and the Palestinians. Unfortunately, that person is Sanders, who is the most critical of Israel of the Democratic candidates, as well as one who embraces anti-Semites and anti-Zionists as his allies and campaign surrogates.
Many congressional Democrats are strong supporters of Israel. But in a presidential year, maintaining the facade of bipartisan support for the Jewish state requires that those who are in the spotlight should be competing for the support of pro-Israel voters—a group that encompasses most of the electorate and not just the Jewish community.
Trump and the Republicans are demonstrating their unqualified support for Israel. Democrats remain split. While Sanders is openly hostile, the rest of the field is composed of candidates who are promising to pressure Israel or, like Bloomberg, can’t seem to put forward a coherent answer to their party’s left-wing activist base.
Doubtless, Bloomberg, the sole Democratic candidate who will speak to AIPAC, will deliver a good, scripted address at their conference. But no one should be fooled into thinking that he or any of the other Democrats running are an effective check on Sanders’s drive to isolate AIPAC and the pro-Israel community.
That creates a problem that is not of AIPAC’s making, as well as one that it cannot solve. Those who seek to blame the lobby for the problem with the Democrats are wrong. What it needs is a Democratic champion. Unfortunately, one hasn’t turned up.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.