At the American Israel Public Affairs Council (AIPAC) conference, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton delivered a hawkish, right wing inflammatory speech that was met with raucous applause. On the other hand, her opponent, Bernie Sanders, who was denied the opportunity to address AIPAC remotely, gave a speech in Salt Lake City, Utah, which was pragmatic and sharply contrasted with Clinton’s speech.
Unlike Clinton, and all the Republican presidential candidates who spoke at AIPAC, Sanders called attention to Palestinian human rights issues. He said security meant “achieving self-determination, civil rights, and economic wellbeing for the Palestinian people.” Sanders also said peace meant ending the “occupation of Palestinian territory,” and in an interview on MSNBC about his remarks, he added, “If we are going to go forward, it cannot be that the United States just takes the side of Israel.”
Sanders called for an end to the economic blockade of Gaza, which is typically third rail in U.S. politics. He also suggested peace “will mean a sustainable and equitable distribution of precious water resources so that Israel and Palestine can both thrive as neighbors.”
“Right now, Israel controls 80 percent of the water reserves in the West Bank. Inadequate water supply has contributed to the degradation and desertification of Palestinian land. A lasting a peace will have to recognize Palestinians are entitled to control their own lives, and there is nothing human life needs more than water,” Sanders asserted.
However, the speech clung to a political frame imposed upon politicians by AIPAC and other Israel advocacy groups. Sanders started his speech with statements about Israel’s “right to exist” and said the “entire world must recognize Israel.” But once those oft-heard platitudes were uttered, it seemed to free Sanders to talk about Israel and Palestine in a more open and honest manner.
Sanders insisted Israel would have to end “disproportionate responses” to attacks, even when those attacks on Israel are unacceptable. This is a standard position for the international human rights community, however, it is anathema to the political class in Washington.
Referring to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in 2014, Sanders offered a series of objections to Hamas’ actions—rocket attacks, diverting funds and materials that could be used for construction projects for Palestinians to military tunnels, etc. But he also condemned Israel for its collective punishment of Palestinians.
“I – along with many supporters of Israel – spoke out strongly against the Israeli counter attacks that killed nearly 1,500 civilians, and wounded far more. I condemned the bombing of hospitals, schools and refugee camps,” Sanders recalled. “Gaza is still largely in ruins. The international community must come together to help Gaza recover.”
There is not a word in Clinton’s speech about the plight of people in Gaza, let alone the plight of Palestinians in general. And, the fact is, whatever Israel’s “right to exist” might mean to right-wing politicians in Israel and pro-Israel politicians like Clinton, it certainly has a different meaning to Sanders. It means the people of Israel should not have to face terrorist attacks from Palestine, but that does not justify Israel’s occupation, its massive bombing campaigns, its blockade of Gaza, and its construction of settlements.
“I join much of the international community, including the U.S. State Department and European Union, in voicing my concern that Israel’s recent expropriation of an additional 579 acres of land in the West Bank undermines the peace process and, ultimately, Israeli security as well,” Sanders said.
He continued, “It is absurd for elements within the Netanyahu government to suggest that building more settlements in the West Bank is the appropriate response to the most recent violence. It is also not acceptable that the Netanyahu government decided to withhold hundreds of millions of Shekels in tax revenue from the Palestinians, which it is supposed to collect on their behalf.”
Let’s go back to the speech by Clinton. As journalist Juan Cole wrote, she “announced a diction and a set of policies toward the Middle East that differ in no particular from those of far right Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.” She would “squander and throw away the diplomatic opening President Obama made with Tehran.”
Clinton lambasted “Donald Trump for saying he’d try to be neutral in heading up negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.” As Cole suggested, “The US cannot be an honest broker in the Mideast conflict if it is more Israeli than the Israelis, which it typically is.”
During a “town hall” special on CNN, where the five remaining presidential candidates from the Democratic and Republican Parties were interviewed, Anderson Cooper asked Sanders, “Do you think the U.S. has not been even-handed up till now?”
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“Right. I do not think so,” Sanders replied. “I think that overwhelmingly the United States time and time again has looked aside when Israel has done some bad things. I think, for example, that the growth of settlements in Palestinian territory is not acceptable to me, and not conducive to the peace process.” He also condemned Israel’s destruction of Gaza.
On MSNBC, Sanders sharply condemned Netanyahu and blasted Trump for not understanding “this is a right wing politician, a guy who kind of crashed the United States Congress to give his speech there.”
The criticism could have been directed at Clinton too. She said, “One of the first things I’ll do in office is invite the Israeli prime minister to visit the White House.” She embraced this right wing politician.
Additionally, Clinton expressed her full opposition to the nonviolent movement against Israeli occupation and for Palestinian human rights, known as the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. She linked the movement to the rise of antisemitism in Europe.
Sanders does not support the BDS movement. He unfortunately suggested in an interview with Chris Hayes on MSNBC that there is some “antisemitism” in BDS. Still, he said, “If people want to attack Israel for their policies, I think that is fair game.”
In other words, Sanders understands a president cannot commit themselves to dismantling this social movement, especially when people have First Amendment-protected rights to take action against the policies of Israel.
Let’s be clear: the above graphic shows the land taken from Palestinians by settlers since 1946. According to Juan Cole, Israel, a country of 8 million, is occupying 4.5 million stateless Palestinians.
Highlighting the huge differences between the two Democratic presidential candidates is not to diminish the parts of Sanders’ pragmatic position on Israel and Palestine, which unfairly spread responsibility when Israel is an apartheid state and has virtually all the power to abandon policies of aggression for a path to peace. However, there is a critical point to make about a speech, which openly calls for Palestinian human rights to be respected, that Sanders wanted to deliver remotely to AIPAC.
Sanders sent a copy of his prepared remarks. The speech treats Palestinians like human beings. It insists that if Israel has a “right to exist,” certainly Palestinians have a right to exist as well. It does not omit the atrocious acts of Israel against Palestinians to pander to a powerful lobby group. It is not hawkish and boisterous in its tone. It is a sober attempt to grapple with the fact that the U.S. has not been fair to the Palestinians.
Philip Weiss, founder of Mondoweiss, which regularly covers Israel, Palestine, and U.S. foreign policy, noted Sanders didn’t mention Jerusalem. He didn’t use the word Jewish. He referred to his time on a kibbutz in the 1960s, and, as previously acknowledged, he said Israel has a “right to exist.” But as Weiss pointed out, Sanders did not define that “right to exist” nor did he call Israel a Jewish State and “refer to his own Jewishness.”
In other words, he avoided a lot of the pandering that typically is a hallmark of speeches directed at Israeli advocacy groups in the U.S.
Obviously, AIPAC had to block Sanders from giving his speech via video, even though they previously allowed Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney to address the conference remotely. Sanders would have called attention to actions, which AIPAC works tirelessly to downplay and coerce U.S. government officials into ignoring and accepting as permissible. It sees much of what Sanders said as “delegitimizing” Israel just because it forces Israel to defend gross violations of human rights.
The biggest issue with what Sanders said is that he could directly challenge Clinton over her embrace of Netanyahu and her hawkish, right wing inflammatory remarks. He could highlight the major differences between her and why his position is a better, fairer, and more pragmatic approach to peace in the Middle East. Clinton cannot even be bothered to say a word about Palestinians and how they have a right to live free of oppression. However, the pressure from AIPAC and other Israel lobby groups is so immensely powerful in Washington that Sanders probably does not want to draw the ire of those groups. He will let this moment pass and stay focused on his domestic economic message.
Nevertheless, if the bellicose nature of Clinton’s AIPAC speech has any consequences for her in the rest of the Democratic primaries and caucuses, Sanders may reap some benefits.