Symbols mean a great deal in politics.
Consider: It is unlikely that the expected appointment as Israeli defense minister of Avigdor Lieberman, a widely distrusted politician with no serious military experience, will result in radical changes in the IDF, a highly disciplined institution. But Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to offer him the second most important post in the government appears to be a blatantly political move, one that places the prime minister’s desire to solidify his power base over the strategic and diplomatic interests of the state.
Similarly, and closer to home, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ appointment to the Democratic Party platform drafting committee of Cornell West, a philosopher and outspoken supporter of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement against Israel, will have little practical impact on foreign policy. Hillary Clinton will be the party’s presidential candidate and she is firmly opposed to BDS.
But these political moves, by Netanyahu and Sanders, tell us a great deal about their views, priorities and goals.
The Israeli leader’s outreach to Lieberman, his bitter rival and feared potential successor, caused shockwaves across an Israeli society usually blasé about political maneuvering. This was different because its focus was on the IDF, the most respected institution in the land. And the contrast was so great between Lieberman, whose political career has been marked by murky dealings and intemperate statements, with that of the outgoing defense minister, Moshe “Bogie” Yaalon, a highly respected military leader and principled politician. It is deeply worrying that Netanyahu would prompt such a dramatic change, risking his already shaky relationship with the Obama administration and signaling to the world that his government is moving further rightward at a time when Israel is facing increased diplomatic pressure. He and Lieberman appear to have too much in common – a willingness to jeopardize national stability for personal political gain.
The Sanders move, part of his effort to elevate the issue of Palestinian rights in the Democratic platform, is another signal that the party’s support for Israel is declining. As noted in this space last week, a recent Pew study found that “the partisan gap remains wide” between Democratic and Republican voters’ support for Israel — 75 percent of Republicans sympathize more with Israel (7 percent for the Palestinians) while 43 percent of Democrats favor Israel (29 percent for the Palestinians). A warning to pro-Israel advocacy groups: the fastest-growing components of the party, and of American society — minorities, women and young people — are least inclined to support Israel. Sanders has tapped into those cohorts in a major way with his message of inequality in various forms.
The party platform will be discussed and debated at the convention this summer; its content will be largely forgotten as the presidential campaign heats up. Still, it should be noted that full-voiced bipartisan support for Israel is no longer a given in America, and a candidate’s Jewishness offers no assurance of backing Jerusalem’s policies.