In 1988, Bernie Sanders Condemned Israeli Attacks On Palestinians As “Reprehensible”
Last summer, during the fighting between Israel and Gaza, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was confronted by an angry town hall that objected to Senate votes supporting Israel. Sanders insisted that he did not put his name on the pro-Israel resolution in question, but did offer qualified support to Israeli self-defense, while accusing the country of going too far in bombing UN facilities.
This incident has created a rift between some progressives and Sanders, who is widely viewed as the most progressive member of the Senate. Many have questioned whether he can truly stand up for progressive values against a country that appears dead-set on maintaining an indefinite disenfranchisement of Palestinians. Scholar Cornel West has raised the Palestinian issue as one reason he is hesitant to endorse Sanders.
Yet what many may not know is that Sanders was once a strong critic of the Israeli policies towards Palestinians – going further than any major presidential candidate ever has in terms of excoriating that country's policies.
In 1988, Sanders was an independent mayor of Burlington, Vermont, and running for the U.S. Congress; he took the unusual step of deciding to rally his supporters in favor of Jesse Jackson's Democratic primary campaign. Sanders had never participated in any Democratic Party activity before, so he was inundated with questions about his support for Jackson at a press event.
At this very same event on March 10th, 1988, Sanders was asked about Jackson's support for the Palestinians – Al Gore had just attacked him on the issue for the first time. Jackson was explicitly calling for a Palestinian state, thirteen years before President Bill Clinton became the first U.S. President to do the same in his last year in office. This was controversial in quarters of the Democratic Party, where some pro-Israel factions were totally opposed to the idea of Palestinian sovereignty.
For Sanders, Jackson's position was no problem. “Gore is finished in my opinion, I think this is a desperate cheap shot at him,” Sanders said of Gore's criticism. “In terms of the Middle East, I am comfortable with Jackson's position.” He then went on to say that Jackson is the right person to bring the parties together.
Reporters, their interests clearly piqued, decided to follow up with Sanders about his views on the conflict. One asked him about the deaths occurring in the Intifada. “The sight of Israeli soldiers breaking the arms and legs of Arabs is reprehensible. The idea of Israel closing down towns and sealing them off is unacceptable.”
He also offered criticism of extremist rhetoric in Arab countries that were calling for the destruction of Israel, which is fairly boilerplate for American politicians. But it got more interesting when reporters asked Sanders what concrete steps the United States should take.
“The United States of America is pouring billions of dollars into arms and into other types of aid in the Middle East. Has the United States of America used its clout, the tremendous clout that it has by providing all kinds of aid to the Middle East, to demand that these countries sit down and talk about a reasonable settlement which will guarantee Israel's sovereignty, which must be guaranteed, but will begin to deal with the rights of Palestinian refugees,” said Sanders.
A follow-up question asked Sanders if he was calling for sanctions. He said he wasn't, but did say that “you have the ability when you are the United States of America, which is supporting the armies of the Middle East, to demand that these people sit down and support a reasonable settlement.”
“Or else what?” asked another reporter.
“Or else you cut off arms,” suggested Sanders. “If the United States goes into the Middle East and demands a reasonable, a responsible, and a peaceful solution to the conflict that has gone there because of its clout because of the tremendous amounts of money that it is pouring into that region I think we can do it.”
Another questioner asked why there isn't more criticism of Israel in Washington. “It is an absolute disgrace. 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,” he replied, noting that antisemitic rhetoric was just as unacceptable.
We cut the entire video of Sanders's remarks on Palestine below. Watch them:
It should be pointed out that Sanders has not used such pointed rhetoric as a Senator or presidential candidate, but this does offer a deeper glimpse into his thinking on the issue.