Bernie Sanders’s boycott of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference highlights an ill-conceived policy toward the state of Israel and a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The boycott and his recent criticism of U.S. support for Israel also reveal a much larger shortcoming in his progressive foreign policy agenda. Sanders and his campaign are unable to recognize the necessity of allies in the Middle East, even non-staunch allies, in the implementation and maintenance of U.S. regional policy.
Bernie Sanders campaigns on the premise that current relations between the U.S. and Israeli governments are an antithesis to American beliefs and values and counterproductive to achieving peace in the Middle East. U.S. military aid and diplomatic support for Israel enables Israeli governments to violate Palestinian rights and perpetuates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the mind of Sanders, attending the AIPAC conference, a lobby group that seeks to maintain and strengthen U.S.-Israeli relations, provides further validation to the current U.S.-Israeli relationship and illicit Israeli behavior.
Sanders believes the United States must establish an “even-handed” position vis-à-vis the Israelis and Palestinians to resolve their conflict. To achieve this objective, Sanders declares a willingness to pressure Israel – attaching strings to U.S. military aid – to bring them to the negotiating table. He also advocates cutting some U.S. military aid to Israel. Sanders wants the aid previously allocated to Israel to be programmed as humanitarian relief for the Palestinians in Gaza. It is through these acts that the Sanders campaign hopes to empower Israeli and Palestinian constituencies who “genuinely want peace.”
The proposed methods and statements of the Sanders campaign are misguided, ineffective, harmful, and potentially dangerous. Firstly, they demonstrate a poor understanding of the current dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Secondly, they are a misuse of U.S. statecraft. Thirdly, they exhibit shortsightedness regarding U.S. regional interests. Lastly, they lack familiarity with U.S.-Israeli relations.
The failure to achieve a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be attributed to U.S. biases or unviable “peace plans” proposed by the Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations. Failure is largely the product of an increasingly fractured Palestinian leadership. Palestinian leadership is ideologically and physically divided. The secular-oriented Palestinian Authority (PA) governs the West Bank. The Islamist movement Hamas governs Gaza. The depths of the divide was clearly demonstrated by the recent inability of the PA and Hamas to rally around their shared denouncement of Trump’s Deal of the Century. To the continued detriment of the Palestinian people, attempts at reconciliation between the two parties have proven ephemeral or futile.
Pushing for negotiations with a divided Palestinian leadership will do more harm than good for Palestinians, Israelis, and the U.S.
The ongoing division between the PA and Hamas will provoke violence – Palestinian/Palestinian and Palestinian/Israeli – meant to undermine attempts at negotiations. Campaigns of violence already thwarted negotiations in the 1990s and 2000s. Violence will also further fracture the Palestinian national movement.
Sanders is also naïve to believe that providing humanitarian relief to the people of Gaza will entice Hamas to the negotiating table or empower a constituency in Gaza who genuinely wants peace.
The humanitarian gesture for Gaza is pointless. Providing aid to Hamas-governed Gaza without concessions from Hamas will embolden the movement to be more intransigent toward negotiations. Empowering a constituency inside Gaza who supports peace with Israel will be perceived by Hamas as a challenge to its leadership. It will be repressed, possibly violently.
Furthermore, how can Israel be expected to undertake serious negotiations with a divided Palestinian leadership, let alone be pressured to partake in them. Who exactly is the Palestinian negotiating partner? It is unclear when that partner will emerge or whether the future Palestinian leadership will be in constant state of flux. It should be noted that the PA and Hamas maintain distinct views on Israel and a negotiated settlement.
The most reckless aspect of Sanders’s methods and statements is his cavalier approach toward U.S.-Israeli relations. It demonstrates shortsightedness and poor U.S. statecraft. The Sanders campaign views the U.S.-Israeli relationship largely through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is an impaired perspective because it does not account for the importance of Israel in U.S. regional objectives and the nature of U.S-Israeli relations.
In addition to addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Sanders campaign intends to implement regional policies for the Middle East. Regional policies require the cooperation of allies if they are expected to succeed – the U.S. cannot do everything itself. The U.S. lacks staunch allies in the Middle East and Sanders is highly critical of traditional authoritarian U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia. Therefore, who is left to assist U.S. policy?
Pressuring Israel to partake in negotiations, particularly negotiations doomed to fail from the outset, does not bode well for future Israeli cooperation in U.S. regional policies. Israel will balk at U.S. requests and/or increase the price of their cooperation. Pressuring Israel also demonstrates the poor management of an important U.S. relationship. The U.S. should only leverage an ally under ideal circumstances or when critical. If an ally is pressured too many times and/or under the wrong conditions, an ally like Israel will feel increasingly alienated. Israel will begin to strength alternative alliances (e.g. Russia).
Lastly, it is not only pressuring Israel at an inopportune time that is problematic, it is the nature of the pressure that damages U.S.-Israeli relations. Conditioning U.S. military aid will have another negative repercussion. In the eyes of Israeli governments, consistent U.S. military aid ensures the security and survival of Israel. It is this aid that makes Israel willing to take risks for peace. The Sanders tactic of conditioning aid will create distrust among Israelis about U.S. intentions and make Israel less willing to take the necessary risks for peace.
It is wishful thinking for the Sanders campaign to believe their methods will facilitate a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and improve the Middle East. The Sanders campaign needs to confront reality and amend its thinking. Its methods will exacerbate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and weaken U.S. interests in the Middle East.
*Eric Bordenkircher, Ph.D., is a research fellow at UCLA’s Center for Middle East Development. His twitter handle is @UCLA_Eagle. The views represented in this piece are his own and do not necessarily represent the position of UCLA or the Center for Middle East Development.