On Sunday afternoon, a woman holding pictures of dead Palestinians confronted Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) about America's policy toward Israel. Would a President Sanders make the United States into an arbiter of peace? His answer -- slightly muffled in this video by the many fans set up to cool the room -- went over very well.
"Palestinians are entitled to a state of their own," said Sanders, "and the United States should do what it can to make sure that state has a strong economy. Israel is entitled to live in security, not be attacked." Sanders, who if elected would be the first Jewish president, got applause for saying he'd skipped the congressional address of Israel's prime minister.
Michael Tracey, a reporter who'd been following Sanders, pointed out that he'd given the same answer every recent time when anyone asked about the Palestinians. In 2014, a town hall erupted, and Sanders found himself telling constituents to shut up, over questions about Israel and the occupation of Gaza.
A cynic might ask if Sanders has honed his patter since then. The truth is that he's been saying some of the same things for decades. A 1988 Sanders roundtable, recorded when he was mayor of Burlington, Vt. and trying to win a race for Congress, found him trying to calm the same waters he'd be swimming 27 years later.
Some examples? Sanders in 1988: "You have had a crisis there for 30 years. You have had people at war for 30 years."
Sanders in 2015: "You have a horrendous tragedy which has gone on year after year, and decade after decade."
Sanders in 1988: "I don't have a magical solution to that problem. It is a tragedy."
Sanders in 2015: "If I were to tell you that I have a magical solution to a problem that has gone on for 50 years, I don't."
That's what you call consistency -- but in 27 years, the boundaries of debate about Israel have shifted. Sanders was born before the establishment of Israel, and spent some of his youth on a holy land kibbutz. As Peter Beinart has written, younger people on the left, and younger Jews, have never known the Israel that fought for its very existence in 1967 and 1973. They only know a regional power that rules over 4.2 million Palestinians.
Sanders's criticism of Benjamin Netanyahu and his support for the two-state solution and Iran nuclear deal are all firmly in the liberal mainstream. On the left, the discussion has moved on to whether people and institutions should boycott and divest from Israel so long as it occupies Palestinian land. In 2014, when asked by the Gallup Poll about Israel's latest military intervention in Gaza, a 47-31 plurality of Democrats called it "unjustified." Sanders sided with the majority -- but as he found at the town hall in Vermont, it wasn't enough. For the time being, he's winning over audience with a succinct, limited answer about Israel. That could change if there's another flare-up before the primaries.