Democratic front-runner Sen. Bernie Sanders made a distinction between being “for the Israeli people” and supporting the “right-wing racist governments that currently exist in Israel,” at a CNN Town Hall in Las Vegas on Tuesday.
When an audience member asked the question “How do U.S.-Israel relations look under your administration?” Sanders responded: “To be for the Israeli people and to be for peace in the Middle East does not mean that we have to support right-wing, racist governments that currently exist in Israel.” His reply drew enthusiastic applause from the audience.
The event, featuring audience Q&As with Sanders as well as fellow contenders Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, was held on the eve of Wednesday’s presidential debate. Sanders enjoys a healthy lead in all of the polls ahead of the Nevada caucus on Saturday.
Tuesday was far from the first time Sanders has used the strongest language in the Democratic field to describe Israel’s governing coalition and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In a CNN Town Hall last April, Sanders said Israel was being “run by a right-wing, dare I say racist, government.” In July, he said Israel was being ruled by “an extreme right-wing government with many racist tendencies.” In December’s presidential debate, Sanders criticized Netanyahu personally, saying that in his view the Israeli leader was “racist.”
During Tuesday’s event in Las Vegas, Sanders drew more applause from the audience when he said he felt “strongly” about the Israel issue “as someone who is Jewish, and knowing how much our people have suffered over the years.”
He then raised the subject of the Gaza Strip. Noting that youth unemployment in Gaza stands at 70 percent, and that there “are people who can’t even leave the area,” Sanders said that “what American foreign policy has got to be about in the Middle East is bringing the Israelis [and] bringing the Palestinians together, under the banner of justice.”
A solution with the backing of the United States, which has “the wealth to do it,” he added, “cannot simply be one [where] we’re just pro-Israel and we ignore the needs of the Palestinian people.”
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Pivoting to wider Middle East policy, Sanders said that instead of remaining “really cozy” with just one side in the form of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – “the billionaire dictator of Saudi Arabia” whose government, the Vermont senator said, was made up of “murderous thugs” – he would build on “good progress” made by then-President Barack Obama toward a more balanced policy in the region.
Sanders said he would look for ways to “bring the Saudis and the Iranians together,” telling them “that we’re sick and tired as a nation, spending trillions of dollars on endless wars. They’re gonna have to get their act together, and we have the resources to help bring that about.”