Is Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders still trying to win the Democratic nomination for the presidency, or is he simply trying to use the Democratic Party as a vehicle to implement his ideas in the future by shifting the conversation within it? Because lately, it seems like he has been more concerned about the latter than the former.
During last week's debate in Brooklyn with Hillary Clinton, Sanders uttered the following: "As somebody who is 100 percent pro-Israel, in the long run, we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity."
Later, he said: "Of course Israel has a right to defend itself, but long term there will never be peace in that region unless the United States [recognizes] the serious problems that exist among the Palestinian people."
The debate is said to have highlighted a rift in opinion on the Israel-Palestine conflict internally among Democrats; Sanders was openly standing up for Palestinians, while Clinton highlighted the fact that she had stood up for Palestinians in private negotiations but is not publicly critical of Israel.
Vox's Zack Beauchamp sees this as a turning point in the Democratic conversation about Israel, but it is not. It represents a momentary blip in time during this presidential campaign which might needle the thread within the Democratic Party slightly away from a "100 percent pro-Israel" position, which will be totally abandoned if Sanders loses the nomination and pledges to support Hillary Clinton.
Beauchamp notes that while a majority of Democrats sympathize with Israel over the Palestinians, 58 percent also support the creation of a Palestinian state. While this may signify that Sanders' position is becoming slightly more mainstream, it is only doing so within the Democratic Party and is unlikely to win him any new voters.
As the Republican Party takes an increasingly hardline pro-Israel position, a general election matchup in 2016 has little place for Sanders' approach to Israel at the present time. If he somehow wins the nomination, he would face an onslaught of attacks from Republicans that he is not a true supporter of Israel, would leave the country defenseless, and would be forced to flip-flop on the issue.
Additionally, Sanders' hiring (and then firing) of Simone Zimmerman, his campaign's Jewish Outreach coordinator who made extremely harsh criticisms of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seems like a case of bad judgment to voters who strongly support Israel. Pro-Israel voters who may not have known much about Sanders' opinions on the Israel-Palestine conflict may be more skeptical now.
Ironically, the harshest criticisms of Israel these days are coming from the Obama administration. Vice President Joe Biden said that the U.S. government is "increasingly frustrated" with the Israeli government's "steady, systematic expansion" of Israeli settlements on lands occupied by the Palestinians. If a current presidential candidate took a public position like this, he or she would likely be crucified by the media and the voters.
The Sanders campaign has stumbled onto an important political reality in the U.S. as it sails towards its (likely) end over the next few weeks: support of Israel helps win elections, while questioning that support does not.