No Reward for Sanders’s Israel Stance
Sen. Sanders showed guts when he broke from the political lock-step of unrestrained praise for Israel, but his loss in the New York primary shows there’s little reward for such courage
So much for political bravery! Sen. Bernie Sanders had the audacity to say that the Palestinians are human beings, that there are two sides to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is “not right all of the time” – and lost the New York primary by more than 15 percentage points.
Obviously, there were many other factors, including the tightly closed rules for the New York primaries, requiring voters to have declared their party affiliation by last October or be barred from participating.
But still New York Democrats did not appear to reward Sanders for breaking with Official Washington’s orthodoxy on Israel, which holds that the only permissible political stance is total obeisance to Netanyahu and his government. Whether Sanders’s stance hurt him may be debatable but the election result could resonate nonetheless with future candidates who might be more chary about taking a more even-handed position on Israel-Palestine.
In one of the sharper exchanges from last Thursday’s Democratic debate, Sanders, who is Jewish and once worked on an Israeli kibbutz, chided his rival, Hillary Clinton, for appearing before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last month and giving a speech that “barely mentioned the Palestinians.”
While political insiders gasped at his heresy, Sanders plunged on, “All that I am saying is we cannot continue to be one-sided. There are two sides to the issue. … There comes a time when if we pursue justice and peace, we are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all of the time.”
By contrast, former Secretary of State Clinton and the three remaining Republican candidates, including front-runner Donald Trump, went politically prostrate before AIPAC, competing to see who could out-pander the others.
Despite serious efforts by Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich, Clinton appeared to come out on top in the pander-off, perhaps partly because she is more experienced at telling Israel’s right-wing government what it wants to hear. She depicted Israel as an innocent victim in the Mideast conflicts facing unconscionable challenges from Iran, the Palestinians and global activists seeking to put pressure on Israel through a program of boycott, divestment and sanctions.
“As we gather here, three evolving threats — Iran’s continued aggression, a rising tide of extremism across a wide arc of instability, and the growing effort to de-legitimize Israel on the world stage — are converging to make the U.S.-Israel alliance more indispensable than ever,” she declared.
“The United States and Israel must be closer than ever, stronger than ever and more determined than ever to prevail against our common adversaries and to advance our shared values. … This is especially true at a time when Israel faces brutal terrorist stabbings, shootings and vehicle attacks at home. Parents worry about letting their children walk down the street. Families live in fear.”
Clinton promised to put her future administration at the service of the Israeli government. “One of the first things I’ll do in office is invite the Israeli prime minister to visit the White House. And I will send a delegation from the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs to Israel for early consultations. Let’s also expand our collaboration beyond security,” Clinton said, adding:.
“The first choice is this: are we prepared to take the U.S./Israel alliance to the next level?”
Clinton’s one-sided presentation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fit with her longstanding approach to the Middle East, where she has either actively supported or quietly accepted Israel meting out military retribution on the region’s Arabs, even when justified by clear-cut bigotry.
For instance, in summer 2006, as a Senator from New York, Clinton shared a stage with Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations Dan Gillerman while Israeli warplanes pounded southern Lebanon, killing more than 1,000 Lebanese. Gillerman was a well-known Muslim-basher who had once quipped, “While it may be true and probably is that not all Muslims are terrorists, it also happens to be true that nearly all terrorists are Muslim.”
At a pro-Israel rally with Clinton in New York on July 17, 2006, Gillerman proudly defended Israel’s massive violence against targets in Lebanon. “Let us finish the job,” Gillerman told the crowd. “We will excise the cancer in Lebanon” and “cut off the fingers” of Hezbollah.
Responding to international concerns that Israel was using “disproportionate” force in bombing Lebanon and killing hundreds of civilians, Gillerman said, “You’re damn right we are.” [NYT, July 18, 2006]
Clinton did not protest Gillerman’s remarks, since doing so would presumably have offended an important pro-Israel constituency.
Clinton has learned those lessons well. They may have helped her trounce Sanders in the crucial New York primary, pulling her close to clinching the Democratic nomination. By contrast, Sanders might have won scattered praise for political courage but his bravery clearly did not turn around the New York race.