BOSTON – No foreign country features as prominently in American presidential election campaigns as Israel, and those aspiring to occupy the world’s most powerful political office, whether Republican or Democrat, routinely proclaim their support for that tiny and distant country. Yet, in the current crop of candidates, one has refrained from making any such proclamations: Bernie Sanders. With the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) having just invited all of the presidential candidates to address its annual policy conference next week in Washington, DC, this may be about to change.
The fact that Sanders has barely said anything about Israel on the campaign trail is certainly unusual for a presidential contender nowadays. But what makes it even more remarkable is the fact that he is the only Jewish candidate in the race. So why has Sanders been relatively silent on Israel?
To some extent, Sanders’s silence can be explained by his broader aversion to discussing foreign-policy issues. He knows that Hillary Clinton, his rival for the Democratic nomination, is far more experienced in this area, and that support for his campaign is based largely on his pledge to address domestic economic inequality and social injustice. Sanders has stuck to his populist economic message with great discipline, and this has inevitably meant that many other issues get little, if any, attention.
But, when it comes to Israel, Sanders’s silence also reflects a political calculation. Many of his most enthusiastic supporters are political progressives – the most liberal part of the Democratic base – and young people, groups that tend to be more critical of Israel’s actions and more sympathetic toward the Palestinians.