Bernie Sanders’s Latest Criticism of Israel Signals an Actual Debate Coming in 2020

Speaking at the annual J Street conference, Sen. Bernie Sanders once again condemned recent Israeli attacks on nonviolent protesters.

Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, speaks during a keynote session at the South By Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas, U.S., on Friday, March 9, 2018. Amid the raucous parties and speed networking at the annual festival that draws people from technology, film, and music to Austin, Texas, there will be some soul searching about gender discrimination, sexual harassment and how to fix the broken workplace culture. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, speaks during a keynote session at the South By Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas, U.S., on Friday, March 9, 2018. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who has been increasingly vocal on the need to recognize the rights of the Palestinian people, laid out a vision for United States policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Monday that is far more sympathetic to the rights of Palestinians than the pro-Israel orthodoxy that dominates both major parties.

Sanders, speaking at the national conference of the Middle East advocacy group J Street in Washington, D.C., called on the U.S. to adopt a more balanced policy toward Israel-Palestine. He condemned recent Israeli attacks on nonviolent protesters, called for an alleviation of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and even threw in some harsh words for Arab autocrats who express concern for Palestinians but don’t put their money where their mouth is.

Sanders may be veering away from the establishment line, but he’s still far from being the ally many Palestinians look for in U.S. policymakers. He opposes the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign, or BDS, a Palestinian-led movement that aims to hold Israel accountable for its violations of international law, including the expansion of settlements. Sanders has also consistently voted in favor of U.S. military aid to Israel. The U.S. gives billions of dollars in military aid to Israel every year, and generally shields the country from accountability at the United Nations. But in a political system where mainstream politicians in both major parties usually shy away from any vocal criticism of Israeli human rights abuses, the fact that a leading presidential contender and member of the Senate Democratic leadership is willing to do so is noteworthy — and a sign that debate in the U.S. is shifting.

“To oppose the reactionary policies of Benjamin Netanyahu does not make us anti-Israel,” Sanders said to standing applause, opening his remarks. He first spoke at J Street’s national conference last year, using that address to applaud the Obama administration for refusing to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution that was critical of Israel’s settlements, and to encourage a more balanced policy in the Middle East. J Street is an organization that seeks to change the U.S. conversation on Israel and Palestine by organizing within the American Jewish community; it has courted a number of federal politicians to advocate for a two-state solution, but it is far less influential than the hawkish American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC.

Sanders’s appearance at J Street was significant in a number of ways. The fact that a popular national politician appeared two years in a row at the conference helped bring a national spotlight to the relatively niche organization. And considering that Sanders is a leading contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, his appearance may be a sign that the party could be forced to take a slightly more pro-Palestinian posture moving forward.

Presidential candidates typically toe a careful pro-Israel line, refusing to criticize Israeli human rights abuses and instead heaping blame on Palestinian leadership. Typically, U.S. politicians who criticize Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians are marginalized; Sanders, on the other hand, is now chair of outreach for the Senate Democrats, and is willing to adopt these positions even outside the context of a presidential race. He is organizing his own colleagues in the Senate to sign onto a letter urging the Trump administration to address Gaza’s humanitarian crisis, and his popularity from 2016 is virtually unchanged. This may partly be a result of the fact that the Democratic Party’s constituent base is evolving as well. A recent survey from the Pew Research Center showed that Democrats are almost as likely to be sympathetic to Palestinians as they are to Israelis.

On Monday, Sanders was preceded on the stage by Husam Zomlot, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s U.S. delegation, who applauded the senator’s position on the issue. “I am humbled that the man who would take this stage after me is Senator Bernie Sanders. We noted his courageous brave defense not of Palestinians but of American values he represents. We noted his defense … of the rights of the people in Gaza and all over,” Zomlat said of Sanders’s recent remarks defending Gaza’s protesters.

In his speech, the senator emphasized the massive levels of unemployment in blockaded Gaza.

“There is much blame to go around for the horrific conditions in Gaza,” he said. “Hamas, due to its ongoing repression, corruption, and insistence on pursuing a violent struggle against Israel, bears significant responsibility for the deteriorating situation. Israel is to blame as well.  While Israel withdrew its forces from within Gaza in 2005 its continuing control of Gaza’s air, sea, northern, southern, and eastern borders … have made the humanitarian crisis there even worse.”

He also condemned the Israeli military response to protests in Gaza, which killed over 30 Palestinians and injured more than a thousand more. The protests were part of what Gazans are calling the “Great March of Return,” designed to call attention to the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip and the plight of Palestinian refugees.

“I understand that the Netanyahu government is trying to make this all about Hamas in order to deligitimize any opposition to the blockade and the occupation,” Sanders said. “The presence of Hamas members among a crowd of tens of thousands does not justify the violence that we saw, and frankly, it is amazing to me that anyone would find that point of view controversial.”

Sanders used the platform to explain some of the congressional action he has encouraged.

“More settlements will not bring peace. Demolishing Palestinians’ homes and villages will not bring peace. Last year, as some of you may know, I wrote a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu, along with nine of my Senate colleagues, protesting the deeply inhumane policy of demolishing Palestinian villages,” he said.

When it came to Arab autocrats’ responses to the situation in Palestine, Sanders did not mince words. He pointed to a $50 million donation from the Saudis to the UNRWA, the U.N. agency that assists Palestinian refugees.

“Let us not forget that is 10 percent of what the crown prince paid for his yacht,” Sanders dryly noted, referring to a $500 million yacht that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bought in France.

His message to autocrats like the crown prince was simple. “What I say to the crown prince and the other multibillionaire leaders in the region: Stop just talking about the poverty and misery in Gaza,” he said. “Do something about it.”

From most of the conference’s attendees, many of whom trended younger, Sanders received a rock star’s welcome. “Thank you, Mr. President!” one attendee loudly yelled out as he began his remarks.

Bennett Reeber, a senior at the University of California, Davis, expressed support for Sanders’s vision while wearing a sticker that read “Resisting Tyrants Since Pharaoh.”

“Bernie really speaks for the students,” Reeber told The Intercept. “The reason we don’t have peace is because people are self-interested, people make money off of war. Bernie has gotten a lot of criticism [from some in the Jewish community] about what he hasn’t said about Israel or what he hasn’t talked about with his Jewish heritage. But I think this is the perfect space for him.”

Reeber said he’s on board with what he called “Bernie 2020.”

If Sanders does indeed run for president in 2020, this positioning would put him far to the left of where other presidential candidates in both major parties have been.

For instance, when then-Sen. Barack Obama was running for president, he told a group of activists in 2007 that “nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people.” When his campaign was pressed for comment, they quickly clarified by blaming Hamas and not Israel for that suffering.

“Senator Obama has always said that the security of Israel should be America’s starting point in the Middle East,” Obama spokesperson Tommy Vietor said at the time. “As he stated in his speech (at AIPAC) and again in Iowa, he also believes that in the end, the Palestinian people are suffering from the Hamas-led government’s refusal to renounce terrorism and join as a real partner in the peace process.”

NBC’s Brian Williams later asked Obama about the remark, and he once again refused to blame Israel for any part of this suffering.

“Well, keep in mind what the remark actually, if you had the whole thing, said. And what I said is, nobody has suffered more than the Palestinian people from the failure of the Palestinian leadership to recognize Israel, to renounce violence, and to get serious about negotiating peace and security for the region,” Obama replied.

Sanders’s position is markedly different. Though he has not yet embraced the ultimate progressive call — namely, threatening U.S. military aid to Israel — he is not timid in his frequent and loud criticisms of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, something that has traditionally been very rare in the U.S. political system.

But until recently, Sanders’s position was much less heterodox.

It’s true that in 1988, while he was using his position as the prominent mayor of Burlington to lobby Vermont’s voters to back Jesse Jackson’s insurgent bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, he condemned Israeli violence against Palestinian protesters and even entertained the notion of cutting off U.S. arms transfers in response.

But since being elected to Congress, Sanders has been a reliable vote for U.S. military aid to Israel, and has rarely dissented from bipartisan support for Israel’s government. In 2014, he offered a qualified defense of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, angering his own constituents at a rowdy town hall. He has also continued to oppose the BDS campaign that seeks to use economic pressure to force Israel to respect the rights of Palestinians. More recently, Sanders signed onto a congressional letter last year that condemned BDS.

Still, his 2016 presidential campaign brought with it a change in his general attitude. He courted Palestinian- and Arab-Americans, and brought on surrogates like Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour. He sought foreign policy advice from Arab American Institute head Jim Zogby and J Street head Jeremy Ben Ami. He declined to address the right-wing AIPAC, becoming the only top-tier presidential candidate to fail to do so. And in a surprising show of political courage, he took Hillary Clinton to task during a televised debate on the eve of the 2016 New York presidential primary.

“I read Secretary Clinton’s statement speech before AIPAC. I heard virtually no discussion at all about the needs of the Palestinian people. Almost none in that speech,” he thundered.

Clinton responded by citing her own record as secretary of state, where she held talks between Israelis and Palestinians. (During the Obama administration, Israel added around 100,000 settlers, a testament to how ineffective those talks were.)

At the same debate, he railed against Israel’s conduct in the war in Gaza as “disproportionate” to the threat, and risked alienating a large pro-Israel constituency in New York. Clinton took no such risks; instead, she claimed that Hamas fighters hide in civilian garb and declined to criticize Israel’s conduct in the war.

But since the 2016 campaign ended, Sanders has continued to play a role in pushing the political establishment toward respecting the rights of Palestinians.

In 2017, he hired a top foreign policy adviser, Matt Duss, who is notable for being a dissenting voice on this issue. A former president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, he testified before the Democratic Party’s platform committee in 2016. In that testimony, he called on the party to embrace an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza, recognize Israeli settlements as an obstacle to peace, and adopt a generally more “even-handed” approach to the conflict.

Sanders also met with Issa Amro, a famous Palestinian activist. In an interview with The Intercept, Amro said he offered nothing but praise for Sanders. “‘You are my hero. And if I was an American, I would campaign for you to win the election,'” the activist said he told the senator.

He was also the first senator to speak up against recent Israeli attacks against protesters in Gaza in April, calling the killings “tragic.” “It is the right of all people to protest for a better future without a violent response,” he said.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is so far the only other potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidate to join Sanders on this issue. Warren signed a letter demanding that Israel halt the demolition of a Palestinian village and called on the Israeli military to exercise restraint against Palestinian protesters.

Top photo: Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a keynote session at the South By Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, on March 9, 2018.

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