Sanders’ Plea on Behalf of Palestinians Was Banal but Sensational

His tough Brooklyn bout with Hillary Clinton made it clear: the two Democratic candidates can’t stand each other any more.

Democratic U.S. presidential candidates Hillary Clinton (L) and Senator Bernie Sanders speak during a debate at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York April 14, 2016.
Lucas Jackson, Reuters

Bernie Sanders didn’t really say anything extraordinary about the Palestinians, but his statements at the Democratic debate on Thursday were historic nonetheless, at least for them. The Vermont Senator described himself as “100 percent pro-Israel” but focused on the plight of the Palestinians and on the need to treat them with “respect and dignity.” The words would sound banal even in the Knesset, were they not being uttered by a serious presidential contender on the eve of a crucial primary vote, in, of all places, New York.

The clash over Israel and Palestine was just one round of a relentless televised bout staged by CNN at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. From the ferocity of the blows landed by Sanders and his rival Hillary Clinton, as well as the lively cheers, jeers and catcalls coming from the audience, one might have surmised that New York’s decision this week to be the last state to authorize Mixed Martial Arts matches was already being implemented by some speedy entrepreneur.

The true novelty in Sanders’ words was that they violated accepted norms. Presidential candidates usually swear on an Israeli bible before they get elected into office and discover Palestinian suffering only after they have moved into the White House: this is the road travelled by Jimmy Carter in 1976 and by Barack Obama in 2008. Sanders made headlines by breaking conventions and by criticizing Israel in New York, where the Jewish vote is highly influential, if not decisive. Some analysts said his decision might reflect his acceptance of his upcoming defeat and were therefore aimed at his greater legacy. But the explanation for Sanders’ outspokenness could be more prosaic for Sanders and more worrisome for Israel: that he believes that speaking out against Israel will pay off in the Tuesday ballot. 

Sanders savaged Clinton for ignoring the Palestinians in her speech at the recent AIPAC Conference. He used the dreaded “even-handed” word in describing American efforts to achieve peace adding “there comes a time when, if we pursue justice and peace, we are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all of the time.” His unexpected defense of his leftist positions, after so many months of self-imposed reticence, must have flustered Clinton: She forgot to mention his recent error in talking about 10,000 people killed by Israel in the 2014 Gaza War or his campaign’s decision on Thursday to suspend Simone Zimmerman, who had been recruited as Liaison to the Jewish community despite her vociferous criticism of Netanyahu and the occupation. 

Instead, Clinton put herself on the defensive, in a sort of mirror image to Republican debates in which candidates typically compete who is better at glorifying Israel and at ignoring the Palestinians. Instead, Clinton was forced to swear that she too cared about the Palestinians and to intimate that she had clobbered Netanyahu, only in private.

Sanders will most certainly gain the support of the few thousand Palestinians living in New York, perhaps even that of the quarter million and more Muslims who reside in the state. The more important question is how Sanders’ performance will influence New York Jews. According to two new polls published in recent day, Jewish New Yorkers will constitute between 10 and 16 per cent of the voters on Tuesday. According to one poll, Clinton is leading Sanders among Jews by 22 percent and by 32 per cent in another. Overall, she has a 10-15 per cent lead, which has held more or less steady for the past 10 days.

The tension on the stage in Brooklyn was palpable: it reflected the crucial importance of the vote on Tuesday but also that Clinton and Sanders have had more than enough of each other. They are no longer the polite vegetarians favorably compared with cannibal Republicans but two cranky politicians who have lost patience and mutual respect. Sanders repeatedly broke out in derisive laughter at Clinton’s statements and she, while more restrained, could not hide her disdain for the man who had morphed from a nuisance to an immovable roadblock. When Clinton was still the “inevitable” candidate, no one could have foreseen that mid-April primaries in New York would be so crucial or that the ninth televised debate would generate such interest or be viewed as a time to make or break.

Sanders slammed Clinton for her support from big money; she thrashed him back with his questionable votes on gun control. He once again demanded that she publish transcripts of the highly lucrative speeches she gave on Wall Street; she reminded him that he has yet to publish his income tax records (and he then blamed the delay on his busy wife). She turned into a groupie of President Barack Obama whose very touch turns policies into gold while he found her guilty by association with her husband the President for his ultimately damaging 1994 crime bill.  He tried to cast her as racist for using the term “Super-Predators” to describe habitual criminals, apropos, but then put his own foot in it by deriding her electoral victories in the South, where most of her voters were African American.

Clinton had hoped to find a weak spot that would enable her to land a knockout blow and finish off her stubborn rival once and for all. Sanders was looking for a last minute turnaround that would enable him to close the gap in the polls and possibly eke out another shock victory. But the truth is that even a narrow win in New York won’t get Sanders dramatically close to overtaking Clinton in the delegate count. Most commentators believe that his chances of securing the nomination are somewhere between slim and non-existent. Clinton supporters are afraid that on his way to defeat, Sanders will cause irreparable harm to Clinton as she prepares for the big showdown against a Republican rival.