The Backstory on Bernie Sanders and Israel-Palestine: Why Is He So Quiet About the Mideast Tragedy?
One of the most appealing qualities of Bernie Sanders' campaign for the presidency is how consistent he is. While Hillary Clinton continually faces questions about her changing positions, Sanders is seen as the good kind of broken record; someone who says what progressives want to hear over and over again, for decades.
But there is one issue about which Sanders used to be much more outspoken, and has in recent years become very quiet: Palestine. Considering the elevated role of the Israel-Palestine issue in progressive circles, and Sanders' continued success leading up to the primaries, it's worth revisiting Sanders' history on the topic and his early approach to foreign policy.
Burlington's Foreign Policy
Sanders' first big political office was as mayor of Burlington, Vermont in the early 1980s. Under the Sanders administration, Burlington was rejuvenated, becoming a much more equitable and progressive city. But not all of his policies were focused on the city.
“[H]ow many cities of 40,000 have a foreign policy? Well we did,” writes Sanders in his memoir Outsider In The House. “I saw no magic line separating local, state, national and international issues.”
It was this sort of thinking that convinced Sanders to bring linguist and foreign policy critic Noam Chomsky to speak in Burlington in 1985, mostly about U.S. policy in Latin America. Latin America was a hot topic in the city, and Sanders frequently wrote to federal leaders to condemn U.S. involvement there. The same year he invited Chomsky, he traveled to Nicaragua, witnessing the casualties of the U.S.-sponsored civil wars firsthand. “I will never forget...dozens and dozens of amputees in wheelchairs – young soldiers, many of them in their teens, who had lost their legs in a war foisted on them and financed by the U.S. government,” he wrote in his memoir.
Speaking Up For Palestinians, Once
Jesse Jackson's progressive-charged 1988 campaign for the Democratic nomination, which Sanders endorsed, prompted Sanders' first politically articulated views on Israel-Palestine. Political reporters pressed Sanders to explain his support for Jackson and to react to attacks on Jackson's belief that the Palestinians have a right to an independent state. Jackson had been under heavy fire for this stance from the Democratic establishment, led by then-Senator Al Gore.
Sanders offered support for Jackson's position, and went further when asked about Israeli treatment of Palestinians during the first intifada (uprising against the occupation). “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,” Sanders said.
“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 reporter asked if Sanders was asking the United States to impose 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.”
Watch the full exchange:
In that moment, Sanders aligned himself with the basic position of today's global human rights community – that the way to resolve Israel-Palestine is for the United States to use its leverage as the major underwriter of Israel's development and security to push a political solution on the country.
The Missing Palestine Plank
Throughout the '90s and into the 21st century, Sanders has put out a fairly mainstream line on the question of the Palestinians. And since being elected to the U.S. Senate, Sanders has been in a much stronger position to draw a lot more attention to Israel's behavior. But he's been totally quiet on the matter.
Sander's basic thinking on Israel-Palestine was on display at a recent event in Chicago; a young Muslim student told him that “progressives have great ideas when it comes to race, class and many other issues, but often not as progressive of ideas when it comes to the Israel-Palestine question. Very simply, could you state your position on Israel-Palestine?”
Sanders responded: “In terms of Israel and Palestine you are looking at one of the more depressing tragedies that has gone on in the world for the last 60 years. And I would not be telling you the truth if I said I have a magical solution. But this is what I do believe. I believe in two simple principles. Number one, Israel has a right to exist in peace and security. The Palestinians are entitled to a state of their own with full political and economic power. That's the broad view that I hold and I will do everything that I can to make that happen.”
What Sanders said there and has said many times on the campaign trail in response to this question is basically a restatement of the U.S. diplomatic line on the conflict: that it will only be resolved with a so-called two-state solution that guarantees Palestinian rights and Israeli security. The problem with such rhetoric, whether it comes from Sanders, Congress or President Obama, is that it is presenting a goal without offering a path to get there. It's like saying one supports world peace without offering any sort of tangible solution to war. And it's the solutions that are the most politically controversial—such as the idea of cutting off arms transfers to Israel, as Sanders did in 1988.
That isn't to say Sanders has become a typical politician when it comes to the issue. Earlier in the campaign season, during an interview with Diane Rehm, Sanders said, “I'm not a great fan” of Netanyahu; a remarkable comment from a man who is now a viable contender for the presidency. Later, in an interview with Vox, he told Ezra Klein he would like to move away from providing military aid to Egypt and Israel and instead “provide more economic aid to help improve the standard of living of the people in that area.”
These are genuinely iconoclastic statements in the moribund mainstream Israel-Palestine debate in the United States. But there is little evidence that Sanders wants to pursue them to their logical conclusion. In a statement given to a local website a few weeks after the Vox interview, Sanders spokesperson Michael Briggs said, “Bernie does not and has not ever supported cutting off arms to Israel and that has never been his position.”
If you go strictly by how the senator votes, that is very true; Sanders does not vote against military aid to Israel, even if he has floated it on a number of occasions. But the tension between Sanders' words, his actions and the statement put out by his press secretary points to a wider issue: his inability to stand up on the issue when it counts.
The most glaring example of this is a raucous town hall he held in the summer of 2014. While he condemned Israeli attacks against United Nations schools, he also defended the wider Israeli war, and even tried to deflect attention from the conflict by talking about ISIS. As his constituents grew more and more angry, he threatened to call the police on them.
Sanders' defense was that he did not cosponsor the legislation before Congress that praised Israel's war on Gaza. But his failure to do anything to block it (it passed by unanimous consent) reinforces the idea that while Sanders does hold somewhat dissident views on Palestine, he fails to vote his beliefs.
Since that town hall, questions about Palestine have dogged him. During a panel he held after a massive climate change march in New York City, Sanders was confronted by Palestine activists who unfurled a banner criticizing him for failing to oppose the war against Gaza.
There is some evidence that these criticisms have started to make an impact on Sanders' approach. In the last month, his campaign finally started to roll out foreign policy platforms on his website. The platform repeats much of the same U.S. foreign policy mantras about the need for a two-state solution and Israel's right to defend itself, but also condemns “disproportionate” violence by Israel and killings of civilians by the Israeli army. Most notably, the platform calls for Israel to end its blockade of Gaza, a topic all but forgotten in U.S. discourse.
(There is no record of Sanders attending events with the primary Israel lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which every presidential contender makes sure to appear at. Sanders also does not speak at pro-Israel rallies, and he hasn't traveled to the region in decades. While he is Jewish, he does not seem to align with the harsh anti-Palestinian politics of many of the mainstream Jewish organizations in the United States such as the American Jewish Committee or the Anti-Defamation League. His brother Larry supports the Boycotts, Divestment, Sanctions campaign.)
Engaging With a Growing Movement
In the beginning of October, Sanders held a mega-rally in Boston that drew over 25,000 people, the largest Democratic primary rally in the city's history. A group of young people with Boston Students for Justice in Palestine wanted to attend the rally with a banner reading, “Will Bernie #feelthebern 4 Palestine?” A campaign staffer saw their banner and refused to allow them into the event. To many, this was confirmation that the campaign just doesn't have time for the Palestinian issue.
But after the event became public and many activists chimed in with their disapproval, the campaign responded. Sanders' manager, Jeff Weaver, personally called the student activists and apologized. “They shouldn't have been excluded,” he said in a public statement. “It was an overreaction by an over-eager staffer who didn't show good judgment.” Weaver vowed that the staffer who refused to let them in would no longer be working at campaign events.
Engagement with the Palestinian issue also presents an opportunity to make an additional contrast with Sanders' chief rival, Hillary Clinton. Clinton wrote a letter to major Israeli-American donor Haim Saban vowing to help fight the Palestinian movement, and recently parroted an Israeli government talking point when she said there cannot be a resolution to the conflict until the nearby civil war and rise of ISIS in Syria are concluded.
Conventional wisdom says this topic is a political minefield for any Democratic candidate, something that is likely to push pro-Israel donors away from a campaign. But Sanders is not relying on pro-Israel billionaire donors like Haim Saban and Sheldon Adelson. The average donation to his campaign is less than $30. And he's grappling with a Democratic Party whose rising youth and minority base is averse to the politics of the Israeli government; by two to one, Americans under the age of 29 said Israel's 2014 war against Gaza was “unjustified”; views were most intense among non-white voters, particularly Hispanics and African Americans.
If Sanders wants to reunite the Obama coalition and truly stake out territory no presidential candidate has since Jesse Jackson's race more than 25 ago, he can show that he does, indeed, “feel the Bern” for the Palestinians and the human rights the U.S. government helps deny them.