Sanders Says U.S. Must Rethink Israel Policy, Biden Slams Saudi Arabia in Democratic Debate

'I’m pro-Israel, but we must treat the Palestinian people as well with the respect and dignity that they deserve,' Sanders says

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Democratic presidential hopefuls Former Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (R) speak during the fifth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, Georgia on November 20, 2019.
Joe Biden (L) and Senator Bernie Sanders (R) during the fifth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign in Atlanta, Georgia on November 20, 2019.Credit: AFP
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON – It is time for the U.S. to rethink its Middle East policies, specifically on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, said Senator Bernie Sanders during Wednesday’s Democratic presidential debate.

“It is no longer simply good enough for us to be pro-Israel," Sanders said. “I’m pro-Israel, but we must treat the Palestinian people as well with the respect and dignity that they deserve,” he added. Sanders also said that “what is going on in Gaza right now, with youth unemployment at 70 percent, is unsustainable.” His comments won strong applause from the crowd watching the debate in Atlanta.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is currently leading in most public opinion polls of the Democratic race, also brought up issues related to the Middle East by calling to end U.S. weapon sales to Saudi Arabia. Biden said he would “treat them like the pariah that they are”.

Saudi Arabia has traditionally been a key ally of the U.S. in the Middle East, mostly because of is oil industry. Over the past two decades, there have been strong tensions in the U.S.-Saudi relationship on issues such as terrorism, Islamic extremism, U.S. involvement in the Middle East, Iran and other regional priorities.

Under President Donald Trump, however, Saudi Arabia has enjoyed very strong U.S. backing, including for policies and actions that are unpopular in Congress and among the U.S. public. These include the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and the silencing and punishing of domestic political rivals and critics of the country’s most powerful political figure, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Biden said that Saudi Arabia “has to be held accountable” for human rights violations, such as the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year by a team of Saudi government officials. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota also mentioned Khashoggi's murder, and criticized Trump’s reaction to it, which was to back Saudi Arabia and shield it from any repercussions in Washington. She warned that Trump’s reaction “sent a message to dictators that this was OK.”

In the previous Democratic debate, Klobuchar was the only candidate who brought up Israel. She said that Trump’s decision to withdraw American forces from Syria and allow Turkey to start a military operation against the Kurds in northern Syria was harmful to other U.S. allies, and brought Israel as an example. She also called Israel “a beacon of democracy” in the Middle East.

The debates for the nomination have shown a growing divide within the Democratic Party on issues related to Israel and the Middle East.

Candidates who are considered moderate, such as Biden and Klobuchar, have endorsed a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and criticized the right-wing, religious government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but have also stressed strong support for providing U.S. military aid to Israel.

Candidates that represent the left-wing of the party, most notably Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren, have offered stronger criticism of Israel, and Sanders has also called to use the billions of dollars provided to Israel by the U.S. as a form of “leverage” to get Israel to end the occupation in the West Bank.