Democratic presidential hopeful and Senator Bernie Sanders said Thursday that he supports leveraging U.S. aid to pressure the Israeli government and that the U.S. cannot be "pro-Israel, pro-Israel, pro-Israel."
Speaking on the popular podcast, "Pod Save America," Sanders was asked about his vocal criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and whether he would consider using U.S. aid to Israel as leverage to get the Israeli government to act differently. "Absolutely," Sanders said.
"In recent years under Netanyahu, you have an extreme right-wing government with many racist tendencies," he said.
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Sanders, who rarely mentions his Jewish heritage or his personal life, spoke of his connection to Israel. "I lived in Israel… I am Jewish. I am not anti-Israel," the senator affirmed. "I believe that the people of Israel have absolutely the right to live in peace, independence and security," he added.
The 2020 presidential hopeful compared the U.S. relationship with Israel to the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. "Saudi Arabia is a vicious ugly dictatorship… and yet they have been one wonderful ally," Sanders said. "So what we need to do is not say we're 100 percent pro-Israel or 100 percent pro-Saudi Arabia."
The senator explained that the U.S. policy should take into account the good of the entire region and "treat the Palestinian people with a kind of respect and dignity they deserve." Sanders acknowledged the complexity of the issue, citing failed attempts of past U.S. presidents to achieve peace in the Middle East.
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Sanders, whose campaign is more associated with economic issues than foreign policy, favors less U.S. intervention in the world and has called for dramatic cuts to the national defense budget.
"Our policy cannot just be pro-Israel, pro-Israel, pro-Israel. It has got to be pro-region working with all of the people, all of the countries in that area," he said. Sanders added that the role of the U.S. is not to mark entire groups of people as enemies, but to bring people together.
In a rare move, Sanders praised President Trump for his efforts to negotiate with North Korea's Kim Jong Un saying that it was "the right thing to do."
"And I, as president of the United States," he said, "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."
The Associated Press contributed to this report