Clinton-Sanders Israel exchange a real surprise at debate

Story highlights

  • Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton took part in presidential candidate debate on Thursday
  • Aaron Miller: Sanders sounded like combination of Donald Trump and Barack Obama on Israel issue

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of "The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President." Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him on Twitter @aarondmiller2. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Every now and then during this presidential campaign season, an exchange takes place between two politicians that really does surprise. It happened Thursday night in the Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders Democratic debate in Brooklyn. The issue? The virtually all-but-forgotten conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. And the way it played out was both stunning and instructive.

Here are the takeaways about what it means:
    Aaron David Miller
    The big foreign policy issue. In response to a question from CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer, Sanders and Clinton entered into an exchange about Israel and the Palestinians that went on longer than any other foreign policy issue of the evening, including Syria, North Korea or the fight against ISIS. And the focus wasn't even on the current situation between Israel and the Palestinians, but whether Israel responded disproportionately during the 2014 confrontation between Israel and Hamas. That the moribund peace process was even discussed probably said more about the questioners' efforts to catalyze a potentially hot exchange on Israel than it did about the importance of the issue compared with other foreign policy challenges America faces.
    Sanders' unique approach. What made the exchange so electric was Sanders' willingness to go where few U.S. politicians would go during an election season, particularly five days before a New York primary, where many pro-Israeli Jewish voters are sensitive and would likely oppose criticism of Israel. Throughout his career, Sanders has been willing to criticize Israeli behavior toward the Palestinians; and has called for a level playing field between the two sides.
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    What made the exchange more interesting was how Sanders was willing to hammer Clinton not for a failure to support Israel -- the context in which these kinds of discussions usually play out -- but for her failure to support the Palestinians, particularly in her recent speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
    To some degree, this reflected Sander's naivete that any U.S. politician would want to say nice things about Palestinians at one of the most pro-Israel venues in the United States. But it also reflects his own convictions that the United States has been one-sided on Israeli-Palestinian issues. Sanders declined to address the AIPAC event in person, largely because if he had asserted his position, it wouldn't have played well with the crowd. And given Sander's remarks Thursday night, it's clear he would not have pandered. All this said, it should be noted that Sanders is not wildly anti-Israel, and he recently suspended one of his members of staff over vulgar remarks he made about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
    Sanders sounds like "Donald Obama." Before his own AIPAC speech, Republican candidate Donald Trump had talked of being neutral on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, initially demurred on whether he'd move the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and steered clear of pledges to rip up the Iran nuclear agreement. And there's little doubt that President Barack Obama's instincts on criticizing Israel are much more in line with Sander's views that the Palestinians are the Rodney Dangerfields of the Middle East (they don't get enough respect) than they are with his former secretary of state -- at least while she is running for the presidency.
    No surprises from Clinton. Throughout the campaign, Clinton has been consistently supportive of Israel, calling for an approach that takes the U.S.-Israel relationship to the next level and promising to invite Netanyahu to the United States early in her administration. Hillary Clinton is a Clinton after all, and like her husband has a genuine and deep affection for Israel. And while there is also an impatience with Prime Minister Netanyahu, who clearly annoys her, it's election time, and the putative Democratic nominee has no desire to wrap herself in the Obama or Sanders flag when it comes to criticizing the Israelis or writing briefs for the Palestinians.
    Breaking with tradition. Perhaps most intriguing is how at least two candidates in this election season, one representing each party, have been willing to depart from the standard pro-Israeli narrative. Whether this represents a significant shift in the needle on the Israeli issue among the electorate, or whether it's simply a one-time reflection of the role being played by two somewhat maverick candidates, just isn't clear. (Although Sanders clearly is playing to a younger generation of Democratic voters, who are likely to have greater doubts about some of Israel's actions and greater sensitivity toward Palestinians).
    Ultimately, it is too early to say whether Thursday night's exchange remains merely a headline or becomes a trend line. That said, it is hard to imagine if it comes down to a Clinton vs Trump contest that things will be any different than they have in past elections, with each candidate vying to show who loves Israel more. In that case, we can expect to see Trump change course and try to link Clinton to what many American Jews and Israelis -- fairly or not -- see as the anti-Netanyahu and anti-Israeli sensibilities of the former boss that she seemed keen to tie herself to in much of the Brooklyn debate.