PHOTO: Getty Images

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

Editor’s Note: 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
PHOTO: Wilson Center
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.

01:59 - Source: CNN
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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.