How Bernie Sanders Came to Address an Anti-annexation Rally in Tel Aviv

For many of the demonstrators at Rabin Square Saturday night, the American senator's appearance ‒ in the midst of a national crisis in the U.S. ‒ was a pleasant surprise

Amir Tibon
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Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders speaks in Washington, March 15, 2020
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders speaks in Washington, March 15, 2020Credit: Kevin Lamarque/ Reuters
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON – The thousands of protesters who gathered in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on Saturday night to demonstrate against the government’s plan for West Bank annexation, were surprised to see a familiar face speak to them from the giant screen at the edge of the square: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

Sanders sent a speech in support of the demonstration by video, in which he said that annexation “must be stopped." He added that "In these difficult days, it has never been more important to stand up for justice, and to fight for the future we all deserve. It’s up to all of us to stand up to authoritarian leaders and to build a peaceful future for every Palestinian and every Israeli.”

For many of the demonstrators, Sanders’ appearance  in the midst of a national crisis in the United States  was a pleasant surprise, which emphasized how important the Israeli-Palestinian issue is to the veteran Jewish senator and former Democratic presidential contender.

Sanders’ foreign policy adviser, Matt Duss, told Haaretz on Sunday that the senator’s speech was organized following a request from the office of MK Ayman Odeh, the chairman of the Arab parties' Joint List, as well as from the office of MK Aida Touma-Sliman, who is also a member of the Joint List. According to Duss, the senator was honored to receive the invitation and decided to accept it because “this is what it means to fight for a shared future.”

Odeh and Sanders first met in February 2017, when the Odeh visited Washington to attend that year’s J Street conference. They met again in the fall of 2019. “Their relationship is part of a broader ongoing conversation between Israelis and Americans and Palestinians who are committed to creating a more democratic and just societies, both there and here. It’s not just the two of them as leaders, it’s also activists and other people who are involved in the fight, and are looking for ways to work together.”

Thousand of people demonstrate against Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, Tel Aviv, June 6, 2020
Thousand of people demonstrate against Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, Tel Aviv, June 6, 2020Credit: Ofer Vaknin

“When we talk about the U.S.-Israel relationship, we often hear the phrase ‘shared values’, and I think the progressive approach to this relationship is to ask – what values, and with whom do we share them?” Duss said, adding that Sanders views Odeh and other members of the Joint List as partners in fighting for justice, equality and human rights.

The senator “recognizes the big danger of annexation, which will solidify an undemocratic one-state reality and make the occupation permanent," said Duss. "He thinks it’s important for American leaders to speak up against this idea, and to give support to those in Israel who are trying to stop it.”

Speaking at the rally Saturday, Odeh said, “we are at a crossroads. One path leads to a joint society with a real democracy, civil and national equality for Arab citizens ... The second path leads to hatred, violence, annexation and apartheid ... We’re here in Rabin Square to pick the first path.” “There is no such thing as democracy for Jews alone,” Odeh added. 

"Just like Martin Luther King and his supporters in the United States, we must realize that without justice there can be no peace. And there will be no social justice if we do not end the occupation,” Odeh said.

Netanyahu has set July 1 as the deadline for beginning the process of annexing parts of the West Bank. This week, he sought to reassure settler leaders that annexation would be promoted independently of U.S. President Donald Trump's Middle East plan. In past weeks, settlers have opposed the conditions delineated in the Trump plan, namely a freeze on settlement expansion and the isolation of some 15 settlements inside territories of a future Palestinian state, which they also oppose the establishment of.

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