At a March 1988 news conference endorsing Jesse Jackson’s candidacy for president, Bernie Sanders blasted Israel’s brutal treatment of Palestinian protesters as “an absolute disgrace.”
“The sight of Israeli soldiers breaking the arms and legs of Arabs is reprehensible. The idea of Israel closing down towns and sealing them off is unacceptable,” the then mayor of Burlington, Vermont, said to a gaggle of reporters.
Sanders was referring to the television images that shocked the world in those early months of the first intifada, of Israeli soldiers methodically breaking the limbs of Palestinian youths on the orders of then defense minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Sanders went so far as to suggest that the US use the “clout” that its billions in military aid to Israel and its neighbors gave it to force a change in behavior, “or else you begin to cut off arms.”
This was a bold appeal for any elected official in the United States both then and now.
Fast forward to August 2014 and the Vermont senator struck a very different tone, angrily shouting at his constituents as they challenged his defense of Israel’s killing rampage in the Gaza Strip that summer.
“You have a situation where Hamas is sending missiles into Israel … from populated areas,” Sanders said, deploying standard Israeli government talking points.
When a member of the audience called out a question on whether Palestinians “have a right to resist,” Sanders shouted back, “Shut up! You don’t have the microphone!” and threatened to call in the police.
“Are you going to arrest people?” the constituent shouted back.
Sanders quickly diverted the conversation to the brutality of ISIS or Islamic State.
A year later, Palestine solidarity activists were thrown out of a Sanders campaign rally in Boston and threatened with arrest for bringing a sign that read, “Will ya #FeelTheBern 4 Palestine?”
As Sanders, who is nominally an independent, surges in the Democratic primary campaign against establishment favorite Hillary Clinton, the issue of Palestine has been virtually absent from the debate.
In an attempt to halt the momentum of voters flocking to Sanders’ populist demands for economic equality, Clinton has employed neoconservative anti-Iran talking points that frame the Vermont senator as dangerous for Israel.
It marks one of the few moments in which Israel has been mentioned at all during the Democratic primary campaign – a striking contrast to the Republican race, which has been dominated by anti-Muslim fanaticism wrapped in chauvinistic support for Israeli violence.
Though Clinton remains the favorite to secure the Democratic nomination, Sanders is no longer considered such a long shot.
Many of Sanders’ supporters will be hoping that his huge victory in yesterday’s New Hampshire primary will give him the momentum he needs to challenge Clinton in states where polls give her a strong lead.
It is therefore worth examining his record on Palestine and the Israelis, how his views have shifted and what we might expect from him as he attempts to broaden his appeal.
A review of Sanders’ record suggests that the changes in his views are rooted in political expediency rather than ideological commitment.
“No guns for Israel”
During the early 1960s, Sanders spent several months in an Israeli kibbutz, an experience of which he continues to speak fondly.
But that experience didn’t stop him from criticizing Israeli violence at the beginning of his political career.
According to Peter Diamondstone, co-founder of the socialist and anti-war Liberty Union Party that Sanders belonged to in the 1970s, Sanders advocated “no guns for Israel” during a 1971 campaign stop at a synagogue, the first year he ran for local political office.
After several failed runs on the Liberty Union ticket, Sanders abandoned the party and in 1981 was elected mayor of Burlington as an independent, by a margin of just 10 votes.
“In a departure which startled even the more liberal-minded burghers of Burlington,” The Guardian observed in 1990, Sanders “used his [mayoral] office to make lofty pronouncements on US foreign policy,” like “calling for a Palestinian homeland” (“Burlington Bernie takes on big parties in Congress fight,” The Guardian, 15 March 1990).
Nowadays Sanders still supports the official US position of a two-state solution, but at that time espousing a Palestinian state was still outside the mainstream.
Such views were on display at the 1988 news conference where he endorsed Jesse Jackson.
“You have the ability, when you have the United States of America, which is supporting the armies of the Middle East, to demand these people work out a reasonable settlement, protecting the rights of the Palestinians, protecting the rights of Israel,” Sanders said.
Later that same year, as he ran for a congressional seat, Sanders stuck to his position.
“The policy that Israelis shoot people is unacceptable. It is wrong that the United States provides arms to Israel,” Sanders told students at the University of Vermont. “We are not going to be the arms merchant for Middle Eastern nations.”
When questioned in 2015 about those statements from nearly three decades earlier, campaign spokesperson Michael Briggs vehemently denied that Sanders ever encouraged halting US weapons to Israel. Briggs accused the The Vermont Cynic, the University of Vermont student newspaper that reported on Sanders’ views, of presenting a “misinterpretation of old quotes.”
“He didn’t call military aid to Israel wrong,” Briggs told the newspaper last September. “Bernie does not and has not ever supported cutting off arms to Israel and that has never been his position.”
Briggs’ attempt to revise history is contradicted by Sanders’ clear statements at the videotaped 1988 press conference.
After he finally won a congressional seat in 1990, Sanders was still willing to use his new platform to advance his long-held views. But the longer he stayed in Congress and the higher he climbed, the less he spoke out against Israeli abuses of Palestinian rights.
“I have a problem with appropriating $2 billion dollars to Egypt and $3 billion dollars to Israel. Let’s take care of some of the problems we have at home first,” Sanders argued on the House floor in 1991 as he cast a vote rejecting a $25 billion foreign aid measure (“House of Representatives rejects 25-billion-dollar foreign aid measure,” Agence France Presse, 31 October 1991).
That same year, Sanders voted to withhold $82.5 million in US aid to Israel unless it stopped building settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
More recently, however, Sanders has not called for cuts in aid to Israel as a form of pressure. Instead, he has fully endorsed US aid to Israel, while expressing hope that more economic aid to Israel and Egypt, as well as the Palestinians, could displace some military aid in an unspecified future.
The Sanders campaign did not respond to a question from The Electronic Intifada about whether a Sanders White House would still be willing to leverage US military aid to compel Israel to abide by international law.
Ineffectual voting record
Considering the Israel lobby’s bipartisan stranglehold on Congress, Sanders’ voting record could have been worse.
But rather than actively oppose US-sponsored atrocities against a defenseless and occupied people, more often than not Sanders has just kept his head down.
In late 2001, during the second intifada, Salon observed, “Only one Jewish member of the House [Bernie Sanders] expressed any sort of disagreement” with a resolution blaming all the violence on Palestinian terrorism.
In 2004, Sanders was one of 45 congressional representatives to vote against a resolution expressing support for Israel’s wall annexing Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank, after it was deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice.
In 2011, the Senate passed a resolution calling on the UN to rescind the Goldstone report, which found evidence of war crimes during Israel’s 2008–2009 bombing campaign in Gaza.
While some have credited Sanders for supposedly opposing this resolution, there was no recorded vote. The measure was passed by unanimous consent – a procedure which means no senator moved to block it, call for debate or for a roll call, not even Sanders.
As Gaza’s civilian population was once again decimated by US-supplied bombs in the summer of 2014, Sanders was one of 21 US senators who did not sign on to a resolution expressing unconditional solidarity with Israel.
“End the blockade of Gaza”
When asked last summer by Vox’s Ezra Klein if he identifies as a Zionist, Sanders was ambivalent, responding, “A Zionist? What does that mean? Do I think Israel has the right to exist? Yeah, I do. Do I believe that the United States should be playing an evenhanded role in terms of its dealings with the Palestinian community in Israel? Absolutely I do.”
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accepted a Republican invitation to denounce the Obama administration’s negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal in an address to Congress last spring, Sanders, who has openly said he is “not a great fan” of Netanyahu, was the first senator to announce his intention to boycott the speech.
In a November interview with Rolling Stone, Sanders issued his harshest criticism to date of Israel’s war on Gaza – while still justifying Israel’s actions.
“I think that Israel overreacted and caused more civilian damage than was necessary,” Sanders said. “They make the case, and I respect that, that they do try to make sure that civilians are not damaged. But the end result was that a lot of civilians were killed and a lot of housing was destroyed. There was terrible, terrible damage done.”
By taking this position, Sanders swept aside the findings of, among others, the UN’s independent inquiry, that Israel systematically targeted Palestinian residential buildings and infrastructure without any apparent military justification, resulting in massive carnage.
In the same interview, Sanders attempted to straddle the hawkish policies of the Washington consensus with the concerns of many in his progressive base.
“The United States will support the security of Israel, help Israel fight terrorist attacks against that country and maintain its independence,” he said. “But under my administration, the United States will maintain an evenhanded approach to the area.”
One aspect of such “evenhandedness” can be found on Sanders’ campaign website, where he seems to hold “both sides” equally responsible, ignoring the vast power imbalance between Israel, as a US-armed occupier and colonizer, and Palestinians who live under its military rule.
But in the United States of 2016, even a call for “evenhandedness” on these terms is outside the mainstream.
And lukewarm though his positions are, he has gone far beyond anything uttered by Barack Obama, who many mistakenly believed, despite all the evidence, would support Palestinian rights when he became president.
Sanders calls on Israel to “end the blockade of Gaza, and cease developing settlements on Palestinian land,” making him one of the only US senators to do so.
Still, it is a far cry from his brother, UK Green Party candidate Larry Sanders, who has expressed support for boycott, divestment and sanctions on Israel.
And Sanders is no Jeremy Corbyn, the longtime supporter of Palestinian rights who won the leadership of the UK’s main opposition Labour Party, and to which the Vermont senator is often compared.
That said, Sanders’ record is a striking contrast to his opponent’s enthusiastic embrace of Israel’s right-wing leadership and brazen contempt for the lives of Palestinians.
A hawkish opponent
During Israel’s massacre of 551 children in Gaza in 2014, Hillary Clinton accused Palestinians of “stage managing” coverage of the slaughter to gain international sympathy and embarrass Israel.
Since her run for the US Senate seat for New York in 2000, Clinton has made a habit of demonizing Palestinians in order to court pro-Israel Jewish voters and donors.
She was so determined to prove her loyalty to Israel while in the Senate, she voted against a bill that sought to curb the use of cluster bombs, which disproportionately kill children, in heavily populated civilian areas.
The bill was inspired, in part, by Israel’s blanketing of southern Lebanon with some four million cluster munitions in 2006.
Yet the bill was defeated “primarily because it was depicted as an anti-Israel amendment,” according to the director of Human Rights Watch’s arms division.
Coincidentally, one of the bill’s sponsors was Senator Bernie Sanders.
Saban and his wife Cheryl have already donated $5 million to Clinton’s campaign.
Clinton has expressed her gratitude for such support with a vow “to make countering BDS” – the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions movement – “a priority” of her presidency.
“I have stood with Israel my entire career” and if elected president, “I will continue this fight,” Clinton has said.
Following her loss to Sanders in New Hampshire, Clinton is reportedly planning a “fightback on Israel,” zooming in on “Sanders’ apparent lack of interest in Israel” to push Jewish voters to “rethink their support for the Jewish American who has just climbed higher than most others in Democratic politics,” according to The Jewish Daily Forward.
Out of touch
The former secretary of state’s hawkish devotion to Israel is increasingly out of touch with the Democratic base, a fact that makes Sanders’ unwillingness to challenge her on this front especially puzzling.
Clinton is wildly unpopular with younger Democratic voters – and it is these younger voters who surveys repeatedly reveal are much more critical of Israel and receptive to calls for Palestinian rights.
Even Democratic elites – the party’s most educated, highest income and most active supporters – are turning away from Israel. A survey last summer found that half consider Israel a racist country and about three-quaters think it has too much influence over US policy.
Notably, 45 percent of Democratic elites said they would be more inclined to vote for a political candidate who criticized Israeli violence against Palestinians, versus 23 percent who said they would be turned off.
Unlike Clinton, Sanders is not beholden to pro-Israel donors, many of whom are members of the billionaire class against whom he unapologetically rails.
This might explain why Sanders has so far abstained from much of the ritualistic pandering required of US presidential candidates – there is no record of him addressing AIPAC, the most influential Israel lobby group in the US. And it is unclear when he last visited Israel.
As a candidate running on an anti-establishment platform, Sanders is perfectly positioned to challenge Clinton on the bipartisan Israel-can-do-no-wrong consensus that dominates the US political system.
If Sanders’ challenge to Clinton’s frontrunner status continues to grow, and in the scenario where he becomes the Democratic nominee, his views on Israel will come under even closer scrutiny.
But absent significant and ongoing pressure from his base, there’s still little reason to believe a Sanders administration would be all that different on Palestine than the current one.
The coming months will reveal which Sanders will prevail: the one prepared to criticize Israel, albeit couched in professions of support, or the strident Sanders ready to set the police on constituents demanding accountability for Israel’s slaughter of children in Gaza.