Special Series on 2016 Presidential Election: Bernie Sanders

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at a campaign rally, Monday, July 6, 2015, in Portland, Maine. (Photo Credit: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Palestine Square will be highlighting candidates’ statements and declarations on Israel, Palestine and related matters, such as the Iran nuclear agreement.

For our fifth entry in the Special Series on the 2016 Presidential Election:

Democrat  Senator Bernie Sanders:

In the last six months Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has risen out of relative obscurity to become a serious contender in the Democratic presidential primaries.

Throughout his tenure as Vermont’s congressman (1991-2007) and senator (2007–), Sanders has distinguished himself from the trend of lopsided pro-Israel votes in Congress. Furthermore, some of his statements are more nuanced and sympathetic toward the Palestinians than the pro-Israel bromides frequently expressed by American politicians.

On the campaign trail, however, Sanders has thus far steered clear of offering any new approach on Palestine that would be in the spirit of his progressive stance on social and economic issues at home.

Sander’s conspicuous silence on Palestine appears less defensible when one considers that a balanced public stance would not be controversial with most Americans.

According to a survey conducted by the Brookings Institute, 64% of Americans would prefer U.S. policy that does not “lean toward Israel nor the Palestinians.” Among Democrats this figure rises to 77%. Illegal Israeli settlements are opposed by 63% of the America public, including 51% of Republicans and 75% of Democrats. If Israel refuses to end illegal construction, “39% support imposing sanctions or other measures.” Most Americans are supportive of Israel, but 31% say human rights in Israel and Palestine are their main priority and only “14% say they are most concerned about Israeli interests.”

As far as most Republican and Democrat officeholders are concerned, public opinion counts for little. They are bipartisan in their unconditional support for Israel and abject disregard for Palestinian rights. There is little condemnation of Israeli settlements (and plenty of support), and no member of Congress has formally proposed the idea of sanctioning Israel for settlements. National politics on this issue has been reduced to discussions of Israel’s perceived security concerns, which always trump Palestinian rights.

While the above consensus applies to every Republican and perhaps every Democratic presidential candidate, there is an opportunity for a progressive candidate to break with the convention and promote a foreign policy that upholds Palestinians’ interests no less than Israel’s. The opportunity is more propitious for a Democratic candidate considering that  in a recent Gallup poll, support for Israel among Democrats fell to 48% in 2015. Moreover, support for the Palestinians is increasingly a standard position for the American far left, which is Bernie’s base. Will Sanders embrace the new activism on Palestine or adhere to the Progressive Except Palestine (PEP) stance of many American liberals?

Another Liberal Hope?

Pro-Palestinian solidarity activists should temper their hopes for a Sanderspresidency by remembering the words of another liberal Senator who also inspired great hope for radical change: Barack Obama.

In March 2007, the then-presidential candidate told an Iowa audience that “I’d like to see is a loosening up of some of the restrictions on providing aid directly to the Palestinian people,” and added, “Nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people.”

Perhaps inevitably, Obama amended his words after being criticized by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and an Iowa Democratic Congressman. In a presidential debate that aired shortly after the Iowa event, moderator Brian Williams asked the candidate: “‘No one is suffering more than the Palestinian people.’ Do you stand by that remark?”

Obama’s response: “Well, keep in mind what the remark actually, if you had the whole thing, said. And what I said is nobody has suffered more than the Palestinian people from the failure of the Palestinian leadership to recognize Israel, to renounce violence, and to get serious about negotiating peace and security for the region.”

Obama mischaracterized the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, which has, in fact, done all those things while Israeli colonization continues unabated. Nonetheless, Obama continued to inspire hope for a change in U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine. “The continuity of Obama’s change,” however, calls for a critical appraisal of Sander’s record lest false hopes are raised again.

Sander’s legislative record would be the best place to start.

Voting Record 

First, consider the two overlapping years when both Sanders and Obama served in the Senate (2007-09).

For reference, we are relying on the Arab American Institute’s (AAI) .

In the 110th Congress (2007), Senator Obama refused to co-sponsor a bi-partisan resolution calling on “Israeli and Palestinian leaders to embrace efforts to achieve peace and refrain from taking any actions that would prejudice the outcome of final status negotiations.” The resolution would appear to be aimed at Israel, the only party capable of taking unilateral actions to create “facts on the ground” by way of settlements that would make Israeli annexation a fait accompli prior to final status negotiations. Senator Sanders was a co-sponsor.

Senator Obama signed a letter drafted by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) addressed to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. AAI characterized the letter as “urging the secretary to sever contact with any member of a Palestinian unity government, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The letter also repeats . . . assertions implying that while Israel has done everything in its power to achieve peace, it has somehow been rebuffed by unwilling Palestinians.” Senator Sanders refused to sign.

In the 1st Congressional session (2007), Sen. John Sununu (R-NH) [the only Palestinian serving in the Senate until his electoral defeat in 2008] and Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) asking their colleagues to support the Palestinian Democracy Fund, which would allocate $20 million to “support, primarily, through Palestinian and Israeli organizations, the promotion of democracy, human rights, freedom of the press, and non-violence among Palestinians, and peaceful coexistence and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.”

In the 2nd session (2008), Sununu and Biden circulated another letter to augment the aforementioned $20 million allocated the previous year with a “new Israeli-Palestinian Peace, Reconciliation and Democracy Fund” that would support economic and educational development and interfaith dialogue. Both initiatives were pro-Israel as they were designed to promote the Oslo peace process, which is tailored to Israel’s needs over Palestinian rights. Nonetheless Obama refused to sign either letter while Sanders signed both.

Obama and Sanders both refused to sign a letter circulated by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) that was characterized by the AAI thus: “in recognition of Israel’s [60th] anniversary [it] also placed blame for lack of peace squarely on the Palestinians; [and] ignored the urgent humanitarian crisis perpetuated by the blockade of the Gaza Strip.”

Moving on to Sander’s tenure after Obama left the Senate (2009–): In the 111th Congress (2009-10), Sanders won high marks from AAI.

He refused to co-sponsor a resolution supporting Israel’s attack on Gaza (Operation Cast Lead 2008-2009).

He voted against an amendment introduced by Sen, Jon Kyl (R-AZ) declaring that “none of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available by this [Omnibus Appropriations bill] may be available to resettle Palestinians from Gaza into the United States” (the amendment was introduced following false reports in right-wing media that the Obama administration was planning to use $20.3 million to resettle Gaza refugees). Nearly half the Senate supported the Kyl amendment.

He refused to sign a letter calling on President Obama to support Israel after the Israeli navy attacked a Turkish flotilla in international waters, which had attempted to break the blockade on Gaza. The letter made no mention of the civilian deaths, including an American citizen. 87 senators signed their names.

He refused to sign a letter calling on President Obama to pressure Arab nations “to do more to end their isolation of Israel” while making no mention of the Arab Peace Initiative or Israel’s responsibilities toward normalizing relations with the Arab world.  71 senators signed the letter.

In the 112th Congress (2011-12), Sanders was one of only ten senators not to co-sponsor S.Res.185, which called on President Obama to veto the Palestinians’ bid for UN membership. Nor did Sanders support legislation (S. Res. 138 and S. 923) that called on the UN to rescind the so-called Goldstone report on Operation Protective Edge, which accused Israel of humanitarian and war crimes.

While Sanders has not introduced legislation supportive of Palestinian rights, he has not made a habit of introducing pro-Israel bills either (almost pro forma for some members of Congress). In short, his Senate record bucks the trend of slavish Congressional pandering to Israel. In 2008, pro-Palestinians activists projected their hopes onto Obama, but had they consulted his (short) record, they would have recognized a politician keen to avoid much association with even anodyne legislative actions that reference Palestinians.

Operation Protective Edge

Amidst the carnage in Gaza last summer, Sanders was one of twenty-one senators not to co-sponsor a Senate expressing “support for the State of Israel as it defends itself against unprovoked rocket attacks from the Hamas terrorist organization.” The nonbinding resolution deemed only Israel worthy of self-defense and only Israeli life worthy of consideration, and it passed by unanimous consent, which means that no senator, Sanders included, called for a yea-nay vote by objecting to the motion. During an August 2014 town hall gathering, Sanders had a contentious confrontation with a constituent who objected to his condemnation of Hamas’ rocket fire against Israel while failing to criticize Israel for its deadlier assaults against Gaza. Sanders argued that Israel’s war was an “overreaction” and its armed forces were “terribly, terribly wrong” to bomb UN facilities housing Palestinian civilians, but he hastened to add that “you have a situation where Hamas is sending missiles into Israel” and borrowed an Israeli talking-point that appeared to (at least partly) shift the blame for Palestinian civilian deaths from Israel’s liberal use of heavy firepower in densely-packed civilian neighborhoods to Hamas’ alleged firing of rockets from civilian areas.

Sanders was jeered by the crowd that shouted, inter alia, “occupied populations have the right to resist.”

In the end, the Senator demurred, “I believe in a two-state solution. I would hope that the U.S. in a very very difficult situation, where the leadership on both sides is not particularly good, can finally work out a situation where Israel has a right to exist in security, and at the same time the Palestinians have a state of their own.

“I have been working on it for the last 50 years. I’m sorry, I don’t have the magic answer. This is a very depressing and difficult issue. This has gone on for 60 bloody years, year after year… If you’re asking me if I have the magical solution, I don’t, and you know what, I doubt very much that you do.”

On his campaign website, Sanders has a few paragraphs on Israel and Palestine in which he reaffirms his commitment to a two-state solution: “Palestinians must unequivocally recognize Israel’s right to exist, and hold accountable those who have committed terrorist acts. The Israelis must end the blockade of Gaza, and cease developing settlements on Palestinian land. […] In the meantime, strict adherence, by all sides, to the tenets of international humanitarian law is necessary in order to avoid escalating the conflict yet again.”

The Senator’s webpage also addresses last summer’s war:

“The most recent violence in Gaza represented a particularly ugly and violent time in the dispute. Senator Sanders strongly condemned indiscriminate rocket fire by Hamas into Israeli territory, and Hamas’ use of civilian neighborhoods to launch those attacks. However, while recognizing that Israel has the right to defend itself, he also strongly condemned Israeli attacks on Gaza as disproportionate and the widespread killing of civilians as completely unacceptable” [Emphasis ours].

Bibi Goes to Washington

Sanders was the first senator to announce he would boycott Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s address to Congress. The premier was invited by the Republican House Speaker to publicly condemn the Iran nuclear agreement, which, at the time, was still being negotiated with full details yet to be disclosed. In a statement released on his Senate website, Sanders implied Bibi’s speech was an opportunistic ploy meant to shore up support back home before the Israeli election and “improperly interfered with President Obama’s leading role in charting U.S. foreign policy.”

A few months after the speech, Sanders told NPR’s Diane Rehm that he’s “not a great fan of Netanyahu.”

Feel the Bern for Palestine? 

(Photo Credit: Boston Students for Justice in Palestine)
(Photo Credit: Boston Students for Justice in Palestine)

Representatives of Boston University’s Students for Justice in Palestine recently attended one of the largest Sanders’ rallies to date, with over 20,000 in attendance, holding a sign that read “Will Ya #FeelTheBern for Palestine?” Despite a supportive reception by other audience members, a member of Sander’s campaign staff reportedly asked security to ask the students to put the sign away or leave. Considering that many other audience members held signs about political issues that were important to them, these students did not see why they should be excluded and censored. When they began filming their forced removal from the premises, the security staff threatened to arrest the students. Sander’s campaign later apologized for the incident, announced that the staffer responsible had been fired,  and reiterated that the staffer’s decision did not reflect Sanders’ positions.

On Zionism

When asked by Vox’s Ezra Klein if he is a Zionist, Sanders responded:

“A Zionist? What does that mean? Want to define what the word is? Do I think Israel has the right to exist? Yeah, I do. Do I believe that the United States should be playing an even-handed role in terms of its dealings with the Palestinian community in Israel? Absolutely I do.

“Again, I think that you have volatile regions in the world, the Middle East is one of them, and the United States has got to work with other countries around the world to fight for Israel’s security and existence at the same time as we fight for a Palestinian state where the people in that country can enjoy a decent standard of living, which is certainly not the case right now. My long-term hope is that instead of pouring so much military aid into Israel, into Egypt, we can provide more economic aid to help improve the standard of living of the people in that area.”

A President Sanders? 

Will Bernie Sanders likely act with more balance and moderation when it comes to Palestine than either recent U.S. presidents or other major candidates for the 2016 election?

Sanders is no war hawk and his voting record is not hostile toward the Palestinians. He voted against the war in Iraq, has called on Presidents Bush and Obama to withdraw troops from Afghanistan as soon as possible, and wants to de-escalate U.S. military involvement abroad. A more balanced policy on Israel and Palestine would appear to be his natural turf.

Yet in public forums he rarely chooses to discuss foreign policy, let alone Palestine, preferring to stick to his traditional bailiwick, economic reform. When pressed about Israel/Palestine he often fumbles saying it’s a difficult problem or “tough stuff.”

While expectations for a radical policy change may be premature, his voting record, public statements, and decades of leftist politics might foreshadow a presidential administration that would be more sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians, certainly more so than any other major presidential contender (including his chief rival for the Democratic party’s nomination, Hillary Clinton, who has decidedly aligned herself against the Palestinians).

This article was written by Institute for Palestine Studies intern Emily Johanson.

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