Israeli Politicians Are Jumping on the Bernie-bashing Bandwagon

Bernie Sanders' admission of error wasn’t good enough for Israeli politicians hungry for an opportunity to hit the international headlines.

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Senator Bernie Sanders gestures during a campaign rally in New York, April 8, 2016.
Senator Bernie Sanders gestures during a campaign rally in New York, April 8, 2016.Credit: Reuters

It began with a simple mistake by Bernie Sanders, and ended up with the bashing of the presidential candidate by spotlight-seeking Israeli politicians who were quick to take advantage of Bernie’s blunder, in an utterly unhelpful and unnecessary foray into American electoral politics.

From the very beginning, the transcript of Sanders’ interview with the Daily News editorial board last week, in which he misstated the number of fatalities in the 2014 Gaza conflict, showed that the contender for the Democratic presidential nomination fully admitted he wasn’t sure he was right.

Sanders: Anybody help me out here, because I don’t remember the figures, but my recollection is over 10,000 innocent people were killed in Gaza. Does that sound right?

Daily News: I think it’s probably high, but we can look at that.

Sanders: I don’t have it in my numberbut I think it’s over 10,000. My understanding is that a whole lot of apartment houses were leveled. Hospitals, I think, were bombed. So yeah, I do believe and I don’t think I’m alone in believing that Israel’s force was more indiscriminate than it should have been.

Daily News: Okay. We will check the facts. I don’t want to venture a number that I’m not sure on, but we will check those facts.

The transcript shows that a member of their staff indeed checked the facts during the interview and informed Sanders: “I double-checked the facts. It’s the miracle of the iPhone. My recollection was correct. It was about 2,300, I believe, killed, and 10,000 wounded.”

The Sanders Gaza error didn’t immediately grab headlines in the U.S. -- the misstep had been corrected immediately and competed for attention with far larger and more troubling Sanders stumbles in that same interview in areas like economics, which, unlike foreign policy, were supposed to be his areas of expertise and the bedrock of his campaign. And, frankly, in the current presidential campaign, given some of the wildly off-base assertions of certain candidates (Donald Trump, anyone?), the bar for factual accuracy has been set so low that a quickly corrected mistake like Sanders’ barely registered for most political reporters. (Even if anyone harbored the slightest suspicion that Sanders had deliberately inflated the numbers, they could easily confirm that only a few weeks ago Sanders gave a speech in which he stated the correct figures.)

When Sanders publicly acknowledged his mistake, responding to a request of the Anti-Defamation League that he do so since “accuracy and accountability are essential for the voting public, but also for U.S. credibility in the international community,” it could have -- and should -- have been the end of it.

But admitting error wasn’t good enough for Israeli politicians hungry for an opportunity to hit the international headlines by jumping aboard the Bernie-bashing bandwagon. With the half-hearted qualifier that “they didn’t want to interfere in US elections, but ”, they proceeded to plunge right in.  

Leading the pack was Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who has been working hard to burnish his credentials as a tough advocate for Israel on the international stage in order to appear as prime ministerial as possible. (Lapid makes no secret of where his aspirations lie. )

Lapid went straight to the source, writing an opinion piece  in The Daily News charging that Sanders’ snafu “reflects everything Hamas’ propaganda arm, with the support of anti-Israel BDS organizations, tried to sell to the world over the past two years,” and that “when a Jewish candidate for President of the United States quotes the lies of Hamas without checking, we have a reason to worry.”

In addition to disputing Sander’s assertion that Israel used “disproportionate” force, Lapid went so far as to assert boldly that “in the history of war there was never a greater effort by a military force to avoid civilian casualties.”

Not to be outdone by a mere opposition leader, Israeli cabinet members weighed in. Minister of Immigrant Absorption and Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Ze’ev Elkin called Sander’s flawed assertion "a weird and loony statement." Science, Space and Technology Minister Ophir Akunis added, "Sanders has spread horrible lies against the State of Israel and he needs to apologize as soon as possible."

But the most lacerating rhetoric came from a former diplomat who is now clearly all politician -- former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and current MK Michael Oren. Oren added his voice to the chorus demanding, like Akunis, not only that Sanders admit he was wrong, but say he was sorry.

Sanders “owes Israel an apology,” Oren charged, because “he accused us of a blood libel.”  

Inadvertently, Sanders hit back at Oren by putting him through what must be a painful experience for any politician -- the presidential candidate didn’t even know who the former ambassador was. When Sanders was asked on CNN for his reaction to Mr. Oren’s “blood libel” accusation, he responded, confused, “Who is Mr. Oren”?

One person who wasn’t busy beating Sanders over the head with his error, calling him names or declaring that he owed Israel an apology? His rival, Hillary Clinton, who, unlike Sanders’ Israeli critics, is enough of a seasoned politician to know that lashing out over an honest error would do her no good.

Interviewed by CNN’s Jake Tapper over the weekend, Clinton, unlike the Israelis, declined the opportunity to rap Sanders for his mistake or his position on the Gaza War, while making it clear that she rejected his description of Israel’s response to Hamas as “disproportionate.” Clinton asserted that Israel had the right to defend itself from Hamas rocket attacks, adding that “when you are being attacked and rockets are raining down on your people and your soldiers are under attack, you have to respond.”

Sanders stood by his description of the Gaza effort during his turn with Tapper. “Was Israel’s response disproportionate? “I think it was,” Sanders said. “Israel has a 100 percent — and no one will fight for that principle more strongly than I will — has the right to live in freedom, independently, and in security without having to be subjected to terrorist attacks. But I think that we will not succeed to ever bring peace into that region unless we also treat the Palestinians with dignity and respect.”

Now Sanders, in all likelihood, is not going to be president, and most American Jewish Democrats who support Israel justifiably feel more comfortable with Clinton and her track record than Sanders with his vague assertions and failure to do his homework. Still, the vitriol hurled at him from Israel for mixing up some numbers ultimately does more damage to Israel’s image than the error itself, and that fall-out isn’t just limited to Sanders supporters or to Democrats.

Critical as he may be, Sanders undeniably has a connection to the Jewish state, is genuinely passionate about its right to exist and thrive, and couches his criticism in respectful terms, aspiring for balance between criticism of Israel and the Palestinians -- often to the disappointment of some of his more radical hard-left supporters.

Israeli leaders responding to his mistake with gratuitous attacks and insults that have no clear goal other than to flex muscles score domestic political points, while demanding an apology for a corrected factual error only reinforces the image of Israel as an ally who requires criticism-free fealty from U.S. leaders lest they go on the attack. For the American public, especially Democrats, it is an unpleasant echo and reminder of the icy relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Obama administration.

It is also an absurdly self-defeating exercise. After all, if the goal of the grandstanding by Lapid, Oren, Elkin and Akunis was to convince the world that Israelis aren’t “disproportionate” in their responses when someone does them wrong - their overreactions really undermined their point.