Sanders' Adviser Tells Haaretz What His 'Progressive' Foreign Policy Means for Israel

Matt Duss says calling Bernie Sanders an 'isolationist' is a 'slur' – and explains what the difference between Benjamin Netanyahu and rival Benny Gantz is for the Democratic presidential contender

Alexander Griffing
Alexander Griffing
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Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders addressing supporters at his New Hampshire primary night rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, February 11, 2020.
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders addressing supporters at his New Hampshire primary night rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, February 11, 2020.Credit: MIKE SEGAR/ REUTERS
Alexander Griffing
Alexander Griffing

With his win in New Hampshire on Tuesday and strong showing in Iowa last week, Bernie Sanders has established himself as the front-runner in the Democratic 2020 race. And while he is likely to be locked in another fierce left versus center battle this year, one thing is already starkly different from his 2016 run: the added clarity of his foreign policy vision.

While much of the criticism surrounding Sanders’ stance on Israel remains the same as it was four years ago, the Vermont senator’s foreign policy adviser Matt Duss told Haaretz over the phone, ahead of the Iowa cauceses, that to label Sanders an “isolationist,” as many of his critics have done, is simply a “slur.”

Israel’s third election is a racist race to replace BibiCredit: Haaretz Weekly Podcast Ep. 61

Following his loss to Hillary Clinton, Sanders worked to bolster his foreign policy credentials – a perceived weak point for the longtime independent lawmaker. Despite not serving on the Senate’s foreign affairs or armed services committees, where a U.S. senator would regularly hire a Middle East adviser, Sanders added Duss to his team after the 2016 campaign to help him beef up his foreign policy chops.

Duss, 47, who was described by The Nation last February as “one of the most significant figures reshaping progressive foreign policy in the Trump era,” got his start in politics on Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign. He started blogging on foreign policy matters and worked his way up through D.C.’s liberal think tanks, eventually becoming president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace – a left-wing nonprofit that promotes the two-state solution – before joining Sanders’ Senate staff.

Together, they led the charge for Congress’ historic April 2019 vote in which it used the War Powers Act to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. While Trump eventually vetoed the measure, Duss claims that the vote was the most significant foreign policy achievement of the current Congress.

More than any other leading Democratic contender, Sanders has detailed his foreign policy vision on the campaign trail, focusing on addressing the causes of international conflict and ending America’s “endless wars.” He argued in Foreign Affairs last June that George W. Bush’s “war on terror” has actually emboldened terrorism in the Middle East.

Critics have characterized this part of Sanders’ rhetoric as isolationist and even Trump-like, given the U.S. president’s “America First” pledges to end “stupid” Middle Eastern wars and reinvest the money at home instead. Sanders vehemently opposed the Iraq War and criticized former Vice President Joe Biden for his vote and campaigning for the war, which Sanders – like Trump – calls “disastrous.”

Matt Duss, center, attending the Netroots Nation progressive bloggers conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, with Didi Remez, left, and Ben Armbruster, July 24, 2010.Credit: Isaac Brekken / Tribune News Ser

However, Sanders and Trump differ on several key areas. Duss notes that Sanders regularly acknowledges both the need for building strong international alliances and the use of military action in specific circumstances – despite consistently advocating to “end America’s endless wars.” He also echoes Trump in his promises of dealmaking, but replaces the president’s “transactional” approach with one that Duss says is focused on “upholding international human rights standards.”

“As president,” Sanders told the Pod Save America podcast over the summer, “I will sit down in a room with the leadership of Saudi Arabia, with the leadership of Iran, with the leadership of the Palestinians, with the leadership of Israel, and hammer out some damn agreements which will try to end the conflicts that exist there.”

Also, while willing to meet with authoritarian leaders to make a deal, Sanders explained in a major foreign policy speech in October 2018 that, unlike Trump, his progressive approach is aimed at undoing the “damage” of the populist, anti-immigration right that has swept the world in recent years. This holistic worldview, Duss says, is also relevant when it comes to the Middle East.

Sanders sees the effort to confront the threats of ISIS and Al-Qaida as going hand in hand with addressing the oppression and corruption they feed off in the Middle East, Duss explains. He cites Sanders’ foreign policy speeches that often center around upholding universal human rights and improving standards of living. For example, he regularly begins speeches about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by mentioning the high unemployment rate in Gaza.

When asked if there is any historical comparison for Sanders’ “progressive international engagement,” Duss points to the Marshall Plan, which provided billions of dollars of U.S. aid to postwar Western Europe. He explains that while clearly “a different historical moment,” the plan serves as a blueprint for “the massive economic mobilization and investments in technological innovation needed to address shared global challenges like climate change.”

‘Not stoking hatred’

When it comes to Israel, Sanders has the rare distinction of being both the only candidate to have actually lived in the country (spending several months on a kibbutz in northern Israel in 1963) and to be regularly accused of being anti-Israel.

Sanders, who called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “racist” in a televised Democratic debate last December, also listed Israel alongside Russia, India, Brazil and Hungary as countries where “we see the rise of a divisive and destructive form of politics. We see intolerant, authoritarian political leaders attacking the very foundations of democratic societies,” he wrote in Jewish Currents last November.

Speaking at the J Street conference in Washington last October, Sanders promised to use U.S. military aid as leverage to get Israel back to the negotiating table with the Palestinians, even suggesting to send some of that $3.8 billion annual aid to Gaza for humanitarian relief. Fellow presidential contenders Senator Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg have left that option open as well. Duss notes, however, that if Sanders were to become president, he would make every effort to work with any Israeli government to advance shared interests.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders waving to supporters at a primary night election rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, February 11, 2020.Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

When asked whether he sees any major differences between Netanyahu and his political rival, Kahol Lavan’s Benny Gantz, ahead of the March 2 Israeli election, Duss points out that Gantz is not out “stoking hatred and division” the way Netanyahu is – which Duss sees as an important distinction.

While Sanders is popular with progressives and young Democrats, he polled as the least popular of the leading contenders among Jewish Democrats in a Pew Research Center survey released ahead of the Iowa caucus. And Michael Bloomberg, also running to be America’s first Jewish president, said at a recent rally: “As president, I will always have Israel’s back,” while declaring he would not touch U.S. aid for Israel – a thinly veiled jab at Sanders.

Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress, a mainstream pro-Israel group, wrote recently on the Fox News website that, if elected, Sanders would be “the most anti-Israel president since the founding of the modern Jewish state in 1948.” He added that “Sanders has surrounded himself with political allies who champion anti-Israel policies,” specifically mentioning Linda Sarsour and Congresswomen Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Sanders has previously addressed such criticism directly, insisting in a CNN town hall last April that he is “100 percent pro-Israel” and committed to Israel’s security.

In an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd last May, Sanders left open the possibility of moving the U.S. Embassy out of Jerusalem as a way to get a peace deal, saying that “whether it is Iran and Saudi Arabia, whether it is Israel and the Palestinians, the United States needs to bring people together, needs an evenhanded policy.”

Regardless of the outcome of the Democratic primary, Israel is all but certain to be a flash point when the party’s general election platform is drafted – as it was in the last two cycles. In 2012, for instance, controversy erupted when language declaring Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital was removed and then reinstated at then-President Barack Obama’s behest, eliciting boos at the party convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.

For his part, Duss – who will have a key role in crafting Sanders’ policies on Israel and worked on the contentious 2016 Democratic platform – said at the time: “There is no question that we should be and will be Israel’s friend in resolving this conflict.” However, he argued that the U.S. must “recognize that Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian territories … run contrary to fundamental American values.”

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