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Prodded by Millennials, Bernie Sanders Reboots the Conversation on Israel and Palestine

Posted on Apr 17, 2016

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at a roundtable discussion at the First Unitarian Congregational Society in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. (Mary Altaffer / AP)

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This is the final article in “Beholden,” a seven-part series about the presidential candidates on Israel and Palestine.

By American standards, it was a breathtaking moment, played out in a converted Brooklyn warehouse. On national television, a major presidential candidate was sharply criticizing Israel’s “disproportionate” attacks in Gaza, and his opponent Hillary Clinton’s slavishly pro-Israel speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), in which she “barely mentioned … the needs of the Palestinian people.”

If this were almost any other nation, Bernie Sanders’ call for a more “even-handed role” on the issue of Israel and Palestine would come off as centrist and unremarkable. After all, he’s only calling for fairness, and even that is couched carefully in the obligatory rhetoric that “Israel has a right to defend itself.”

But, of course, this is the land of the “dishonest broker,” the United States, and the New York presidential primary, for crying out loud. And by those standards, the Sanders call for “justice” on Israel and Palestine, his insistence that “we are gonna have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity” (with what?), and his direct criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—in front of millions of American viewers—is unprecedented, at least in recent decades of prime-time presidential elections.

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How progressive this actually is, and how much it will mean in the long run, is another matter. But we’ll get to that.

By nearly every measure—income inequality, financial corruption, race relations, the environment, foreign policy—Sanders is changing the conversation in the United States, hauling out unpopular items long ago kicked under the couch. Nowhere is this more surprising than on the question of Palestine and Israel.

Sanders is not new to the issue. During the 1988 presidential primaries, as the Palestinian intifada raged in the Israeli-occupied territories, Sanders, then mayor of Burlington, Vt., stood by Democratic candidate Jesse Jackson and his prophetic call for an independent Palestinian state. The soon-to-fade candidate Al Gore had baited Jackson on the issue, smarmily trying to curry favor with Jewish voters in another New York primary. “Gore is finished in my opinion, I think this is a desperate cheap shot at him [Jackson],” Sanders declared. But then the Brooklynite doubled down, calling out the tactics of Israel’s military to deliberately break the bones of Palestinian stone-throwers. “It is an absolute disgrace,” Sanders said. “It goes without saying. Soldiers of any nation, especially an occupying power, are not allowed under any moral code to break the arms and legs of people. That is absolutely unacceptable, period. And that sort of behavior must be condemned.” Sanders even called for the U.S. to suspend arms shipments to Israel and other Mideast nations if they didn’t begin to pursue “a peaceful solution to the conflict.”

Twenty-five years later, in a 2013 Playboy interview, Sanders remained willing to criticize Israel, though he carefully couched it in “both sides” rhetoric. “The hatred, violence and loss of life that define this conflict make living an ordinary life a constant struggle for both peoples,” he declared.

“We must work with those Israeli and Palestinian leaders who are committed to peace, security and statehood rather than to empty rhetoric and violence,” Sanders said. “A two-state solution must include compromises from both sides to achieve a fair and lasting peace in the region. The Palestinians must fulfill their responsibilities to end terrorism against Israel and recognize Israel’s right to exist. In return, the Israelis must end their policy of targeted killings, prevent further Israeli settlements on Palestinian land and prevent the destruction of Palestinian homes, businesses and infrastructure.”

Those remarks are now highlighted on the feelthebern.org campaign website. But in the early days of the Sanders campaign, that sort of candor went missing at times. It’s not that he suddenly adopted the Israel-can-do-no-wrong blather of the billionaire-bankrolled Clinton, Ted Cruz and the now-fallen GOP candidates. But still: His knee-jerk defense of Israel during its assault on Gaza—in which 400 times more Palestinian civilians died than Israeli civilians—at first looked more like something out of the playbook of Clinton 2016. At a Vermont town hall in August 2014, Sanders shouted down people protesting his statement blaming Hamas more than Israel for civilian deaths. “Shut up!” the senator yelled at the protesters. “You don’t have the microphone!” Fifteen months later, at a Sanders campaign event in Boston, student activists who unfurled a “Will ya #feelthebern 4 Palestine??!” banner were told to put the sign away or face arrest. Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver later apologized, blaming an overzealous staffer, but for millennials strongly in solidarity with Palestine, and even for leftist intellectuals like Cornel West, these were troubling signals.

Yet Sanders also knows his campaign is fueled by millennials for whom traditional fealty to Israel does not compute. A 2014 survey by Gallup at the height of the Gaza war showed more than half of 18- to 29-year-olds disapproved of Israel’s actions. And a Pew poll showed more millennials blamed Israel for the war than blamed Hamas. These young people, unlike their parents and grandparents, did not grow up with the mythic Zionist slogan of “people without land” going “to a land without people.” For them, the brutality of Gaza 2014 was a turning point. Eyewitness accounts told the story of four cousins, 9, 10 and 11 years old, killed by Israeli missiles while playing hide and seek on a Gaza beach. News reports and cellphone videos chronicled the death of young men blown to bits while watching the World Cup, as Israelis in lawn chairs cheered the war from a bluff in the distance. These images suddenly carried more power than vague threats of another Holocaust, especially when the dark warnings came from a cynical leader whose nation would soon be under investigation for war crimes. In a conflict in which the explosive power of Israel’s rockets and missiles outnumbered those of Hamas by an estimated ratio of 1,500-to-1, the old anti-Palestinian tropes were no longer effective with the new generation.

It seems it took a while for Sanders to fully understand the meaning of this millennial shift, and to fully incorporate it into a political strategy made possible by this opening. But it’s also likely that his foreign policy advisers have emphasized that the principled position on Palestine/Israel, risky as it may be in New York, is also another clear-cut way to distinguish Bernie from Hillary. Sanders has sought advice from J Street, the liberal pro-Israel (and anti-AIPAC) group; James Zogby of the Arab American Institute, with strong pro-Palestinian roots; and retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who helped prepare Colin Powell’s disastrous and distorted Iraq war speech to the United Nations but later said that was “probably the biggest mistake of my life. … I participated in a hoax on the American people… .” Recently, Wilkerson has spoken out against the “corporate interests that we go abroad to slay monsters for.”

Is it easier for Sanders to stake out a more progressive position on Israel/Palestine simply because he’s Jewish? Probably. At least no one can call him an anti-Semite. (Though “self-hating Jew” is the next insult in line.) But his comments also reveal a split in the Democratic Party and particularly among Jews, where J Street and the more progressive Jewish Voice for Peace have gained clout in recent years.

Whatever the reasons, in recent months Sanders’ rhetoric has grown sharper and more critical of Israel. He repeatedly calls out Israel as an occupying power, and demands an end to its blockade of Gaza. This is truly changing the conversation in America. And it makes the behavior of his bought opponents look all the more ridiculous.

On March 21, the other candidates made their pilgrimage to AIPAC in New York. Clinton, in what Slate called a “symphony of craven, delusional pandering,” demonstrated her uber-loyalty to the Israel lobby, and to her billionaire donor, the Israeli-American Haim Saban, a self-described “one-issue guy,” who has donated $6.4 million to her campaign.

Sanders, meanwhile, had declined AIPAC’s invitation. Tellingly, he was 2,000 miles away in Utah, where he essentially gave his anti-AIPAC speech. He deplored “the Israeli counterattacks” in Gaza “that killed nearly 1,500 civilians and wounded thousands more.” He condemned “the bombing of hospitals, schools and refugee camps,” pointing out that “Gaza is still largely in ruins.” And he used the O-word—long forgotten in the media’s accounts of life in the Holy Land. “Peace will mean ending what amounts to the occupation of Palestinian territory, establishing mutually agreed upon borders, and pulling back settlements in the West Bank.”

These words matter, especially in the American context, even more so in a post-Citizens United landscape where billionaires increasingly dictate policy. Unlike Clinton, Sanders does not have a billionaire pro-Israel backer, has never given a speech before AIPAC, isn’t proposing to curtail the free speech rights of Israel’s critics, and won’t promise to invite Netanyahu to Washington within the first 30 days of his administration. Even better, unlike Cruz, Sanders doesn’t have a core constituency that believes Israel must be strong so that Jesus Christ can return to earth and vanquish sinners.


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