Bernie Sanders’ Candor on Israel Shows American Voters Are Changing Their Tune

Gaffes aside, Sanders’ embarrassing New York Daily News interview actually illuminates one of the underrated strengths of his campaign.

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

Bernie Sanders has been getting a lot of flack for his excruciating interview with the New York Daily News, in which, among other things, he made the mistake of claiming that Israel killed over 10,000 Palestinian civilians during the 2014 Gaza war, when in fact that number is closer to 1,500.

Presumably, Sanders mixed up the number of fatalities (a horrific number in itself) with the number of people who were injured — which, according to the UN, is over 11,000. Regardless, it is an embarrassing error.

But while Sanders has been slammed for his apparent lack of knowledge on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and while he’s been accused of being a foreign policy lightweight more generally, the thrust of what he had to say to the Daily News about Israel was actually pretty sensible.

During the interview, Sanders spoke about the need for Israel to withdraw from some West Bank settlements, stating, "I think withdrawal from those territories is appropriate”. He also criticized Israel for its disproportionate response to terrorist rocket attacks: “I don't think I'm alone in believing that Israel's force was more indiscriminate than it should have been.”

Actually, much of what Sanders says had to say about Israel echoes the positions of the current administration. (Obama in 2011: “We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.”) The rest is just common sense. That any of this is controversial in a presidential election in 2016 speaks volumes about the American discourse on Israel and serves to illuminate one of the underrated strengths of Sanders’ candidacy: the way he is changing the conversation about Israel in this election.

For evidence of how shallow the debate over Israel has become, just look at some of the questions asked by the New York Daily News during the Sanders interview. Sanders was asked “who makes the call” about the illegality of the “so-called settlements” that he thinks Israel should pull out of. This is a strange question, since under international law every Israeli settlement is considered illegal, and since dozens of so called “outposts” in the West Bank are considered illegal even by Israeli standards. Israel Itself, by the way, has acknowledged the murky legal status of West Bank settlements by never officially annexing them.

Indeed, over the past several weeks, after staying noticeably silent on the subject of Israel for a long time, Sanders has spoken about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a candor that’s been sorely missing from the statements made by other presidential hopefuls. He has been challenging the unwritten rules of how candidates should approach the Israeli issue, and renegotiating the limits of what serious presidential prospects can say about Israel, by daring to acknowledge Israel’s contributions to its own security crises, its disregard for civilian casualties and the illegality of Israelis settlements in the West Bank — subjects that no other presidential candidates dare discuss.

Rewriting the rulebook

Last month’s AIPAC conference was a fitting example of how constrained the “debate” about Israel has become in recent years. Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and John Kasich, four very different candidates with very different world views, gave largely identical speeches, recycling the same old cliches about Israel being “a light unto the nations” and Palestinians fostering a “culture of hatred and death.” None, by the way, offered any policy recipes for helping Israelis and Palestinians move forward, and settled for promises to “not be neutral” and vague declarations about “unbreakable bonds.” 

At the same time, Sanders — who skipped AIPAC — was in Utah giving a speech that touched on Palestinian suffering, the “absurd” suggestions of some Israeli ministers that building more settlements is an appropriate response to Palestinian violence, and the brutal reality of Israeli occupation. While his rivals were pandering to Jewish conservatives in Washington, Sanders spoke about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the shortage of water Palestinians face in the West Bank. (It’s worth noting, by the way, that during this speech Sanders cited the correct civilian death toll of the latest Gaza war, suggesting that his Daily News error may have been no more than a slip). 

Such positions are consistent with statements Sanders, who lived in Israel for a short time during the 1960s, has made in the past. In 1988, for instance, while still mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he said that that “the sight of Israeli soldiers breaking the arms and legs of Arabs is reprehensible” and that “the idea of Israel closing down towns and sealing them off is unacceptable.”

What’s changed is that he’s now saying them while running for president of the United States, in a manner befitting his status as the anti-establishment candidate.

Partly, Sanders’ willingness to express a more critical stance on Israel than other candidates reflects the shifting sensibilities of Sanders’ base, young voters who are critical of Israeli policies — among them, young Jews who don’t support Israel blindly as many of their parents did. With the rest of the presidential field too busy in AIPAC’s panderpalooza, that leaves Sanders as the voice of nuance. 

Criticizing Israel has long been considered political poison, but perhaps Sanders’ campaign is an indication that that is beginning to change. Most likely, Sanders won’t win the Democratic nomination or the presidency, but in regards to Israel, his candor is paving the way for a conversation that is very different than the kind of shallow talk we’d been previously willing to accept from presidential candidates.