Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, despite sharing the belief that “Israel has a right to defend itself,” are arguably worlds apart when it comes to how they approach the military occupation. In fact, the most recent Democratic debate in Brooklyn showcased not only Sanders’ staunch pro-Israel platform but how remarkably different his rhetoric is in comparison to most recognizable U.S. political figures.
When asked about comments he made, where he described Israel’s attacks on the Gaza Strip in 2014 as being “disproportionate” and said the attacks “led to the unnecessary loss of innocent life,” Sanders prefaced his response with the tiresome and long-repeated mantra that Israel has a right to self-defense. Sanders also reaffirmed his contention, arguing, yes, the attack on Gaza was disproportionate.
Surprisingly, he also broached the subject of Israel’s destruction of housing, health care, schools, and Gaza’s unemployment rate, which stands at a staggering 40%, making it the highest in the world. The language he used that evening may not be especially profound but as a U.S. presidential candidate it was subversive nonetheless.
When asked if she agreed with Sanders “that Israel overreacts to Palestinians attacks” and “that in order for there to be peace” Israel must end disproportionate attacks, Clinton went straight for State Department talking points:
“[Israel does not] invite the rockets raining down on their towns and villages. They do not believe that there should be a constant incitement by Hamas aided and abetted by Iran against Israel…So, I don’t know how you run a country when you are under constant threat, terrorist tact, rockets coming at you.”
In November, calling on the memory of the mythical heroism of Yitzhak Rabin, Clinton penned an enthusiastic opinion piece for The Forward in support of Benjamin Netanyahu. She referred to Israel as “a dream nurtured for generations and made real by men and women who refused to bow to the toughest odds.”
“[In] 2012, I led negotiations for a ceasefire in Gaza to stop Hamas rockets from raining down on Israeli homes and communities. As president, I will continue this fight,” she wrote. Clinton also went on to assert her opposition of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS), writing that she’s spoken out against BDS both at the UN and in the U.S., and that she “will continue to do so.”
Besides repeating the mantra, which vaguely referenced peace negotiations, Clinton characterized Palestinians as being more like violent apparitions than victims of an ongoing colonial project. Her performance during the Democratic debate on Thursday was an unmistakeable extension of her Forward piece, especially when she cited Israeli propaganda—that Hamas fighters disguise themselves in “civilian garb”—in order to justify the Israeli forces’ assault on Gaza.
Marking Passover, the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, published a piece by Clinton on April 17. She discussed “the alarming ‘BDS’ movement” and what she described as “forces of intolerance” that must be disrupted.
In this provocative letter addressed to supporters of Israel, Clinton also mentioned her proud legacy of standing up for the settler state, “making sure it always has the resources it needs to maintain its qualitative military edge.” Then, amongst the vigorous and performative crowing about justice, she took a swipe at the critic of Israel, who shared a stage with her during the Brooklyn debate: Bernie Sanders.
“Protecting allies and partners like Israel is one of the most solemn duties of any Commander-in-Chief. Yet others in this race suggest we must remain “neutral” in order to negotiate. But Israel’s safety is simply non-negotiable. And it would be a grave mistake for the United States to cede the mantle of leadership in the peace process to anyone else. For the security of Israel and the world, we need America to remain a respected global leader, and be ready and able to block any international effort to isolate or attack Israel.”
Israel, always the mighty and yet ever-so-meek, must be protected, and funded, at all costs. Clinton’s gutless jab at Sanders’ so-called “neutrality” is meant to cement the position of critics of Israel as being on the periphery. What’s even more troubling is how Clinton used Pesach to not only advocate for further violence but in order to malign Sanders’ justifiable condemnations.
Salem Srour, a first-generation Palestinian-American, and Master’s student at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., told Shadowproof that what surprised him most about the debate was not just how fervently Palestinians were being dehumanized by Clinton but that Sanders drew attention to her evasion when she was asked whether Israel’s violence had been disproportionate.
“Was their response disproportionate? I believe that it was, you have not answered that,” Sanders said. Srour suggested Sanders can likely be pushed into an even more progressive platform on Palestine, and his statements signify a possible, positive shift on a national level. In other words, the conversation is changing, irrespective of who seizes the Democratic nomination.
Joe Catron, a freelance journalist and Palestine solidarity activist based in New York, has already cast an absentee vote for Bernie Sanders. He has lived in Gaza, Palestine for three and a half years, and is a member of Al-Awda New York and The Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network, Samidoun.
He told Shadowproof, “Sanders has shown an increasing willingness to engage with Palestinians and their issues more readily than any other major-party presidential candidate in my lifetime.” Catron argued Sanders’ remarks are evidence of how public opinion on Palestine has shifted in recent years.
“He’s appealing to a predominantly young base who support Palestinians in unprecedented numbers, with many taking it for granted as an essential part of their progressive world views. His statements result from a political calculation, but the fact that he sees them as a wise move speaks volumes,” Catron said.
Sanders can be pressured to not only be effective on Palestine but also to be radical much more easily than other candidates due in part “to his own independent political tradition [and] because participants in the movement he’s been able to mobilize are so predisposed to support Palestinians already,” Catron argues. “But winning changes from any administration will require significant pressure from the grassroots. The onus is on supporters of Palestine to build a movement that can counteract [Zionist] influence, at the political as well as popular levels, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.”
Julia Carmel, writer and associate editor of The Battle of New York newspaper, told Shadowproof that she was impressed that Sanders didn’t give in to intimidation from the Anti-Defamation League, and Michael Oren, the former Israeli former ambassador to the United States.
Sanders’ statements on Thursday “bear a stark contrast to Clintons who, instead of acknowledging that the Israeli military has used disproportionate force against Palestinian civilians, conspicuously dodged the question and made an irrelevant remark about negotiating a ceasefire two years before the 2014 assault. Her response not only demonstrated her incompetence, but her total indifference to Palestinian suffering. Sanders’ criticism of Clinton’s AIPAC speech specifically challenges the hegemony of the pro-Israel lobby in an unprecedented way. It also conveys just how much is potentially at stake for Democratic voters who want to see a U.S. president who might finally support justice in Palestine.”
“Seeing Bernie Sanders, before he’s even secured the nomination, have the courage to reject the Israeli Prime Minister’s false narrative gives me hope that the Israel lobby’s national influence is waning. And watching the transformation in Sanders’s remarks on Palestine from the summer of 2014 until now indicates that he could be persuaded to eventually adopt a more radical and humane policy on Palestine,” Carmel said.
Yet, in a compelling piece for TeleSur, Max Ajl, activist and editor at Jadalliya, wrote while Sanders “is not cut from the same cloth as most cynical, self-serving, corporate politicians which dominate the U.S. government” the focus should be more on his actions than his rhetoric. And Ajl is right, of course.
While Sanders’ statements are refreshing, it’s necessary that those on the left examine his rhetoric with skepticism.
“Will Palestine be the same? It is reasonable to think that Sanders will respond more to popular pressure than the other candidates. But ultimately, change will only come about due to the build-up of autonomous power, whether through BDS among solidarity groups, or grassroots exile organizing amongst Palestinians themselves,” Ail added.
Sanders’ light-handed criticism of Netanyahu and the attacks on Gaza threatens the “special relationship” coveted by arguably every single mainstream U.S. politician since, at least, Harry S. Truman’s meeting with David Ben Gurion in 1951.
He has shown he is different on Palestine, and surprisingly so, but will his rhetoric translate into truly revolutionary policies? Can the momentum behind his campaign translate into movement building that goes beyond electoral politics? These are questions that need answering, and the coming months, and years, will certainly provide some sort of answers.