Sanders Tip-toes in Criticizing Israel

Exclusive: Sen. Sanders ventured hesitantly down the scary path of criticizing Israel, but even his timid approach looked heroic compared to the pro-Israel pandering from Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, says Joe Lauria.

By Joe Lauria

Bernie Sanders supporters appeared thrilled when they learned he’d turned down an invitation to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference on Monday. By contrast, Donald Trump passed up a debate appearance and Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and John Kasich cleared their schedules to speak to 18,000 people inside Washington’s Verizon Center.

Snubbing AIPAC requires a degree of courage in American presidential politics and almost no one dares do anything but pander to the hardest-line Israeli partisans. But Sanders, who is fighting for his political life in the campaign, hasn’t taken money from the kind of large donors that AIPAC coordinates. Plus, he could never match the other candidates’ fervor for Israel.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confronts Sen. Bernie Sanders in Democratic presidential debate on Jan. 17, 2016.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confronts Sen. Bernie Sanders in Democratic presidential debate on Jan. 17, 2016.

So perhaps Sanders felt he could afford not to go to AIPAC’s gathering, which sent a symbolic message to Americans who feel the U.S. government goes overboard in its favoritism toward Israel. Sanders delivered his views (in a speech in Salt Lake City, Utah) after the conference organizers wouldn’t allow a video hook-up.

A Sanders supporter who is also critical of Israel’s occupation of Palestine might have been disappointed in what the Vermont senator said. He wouldn’t even bluntly call Israel’s presence on Palestinian land an occupation, instead describing it as “what amounts to the occupation of Palestinian territory.”

What amounts to? In other words, Israel really doesn’t mean to occupy this land. This just happened on its way to building ever-increasing settlements. Sanders also takes the very safe line of calling for both an Israeli and a Palestinian state, the so-called “two-state solution.”

Sanders castigated Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for threatening to leave the Oslo Accords, which prescribes the two-state idea. Abbas made this threat last September at the U.N. General Assembly, but no serious analyst thinks Abbas meant it.

But the reality is that Oslo is already dead, as dead as the two-state solution. It died in May 1999, when its five-year interim period ended, after which Israel should have withdrawn and a Palestinian state should have been created.

The continuation of this interim period, having now lasted another 17 years, has led to charges by Palestinians and others that Abbas and his Palestinian Authority are mere collaborators with Israel’s continuing occupation.

Pulling out of Oslo now would blow up the Palestinian Authority, cost Abbas his job and throw security fully into Israel’s hands. But such a move would be the necessary first step toward creating a single, democratic state, which is the only solution left. Everything else at this point, including defending Oslo and the “two-state solution,” is hot air that supports the status quo allowing Israel to continue the piecemeal conquest of the West Bank.

Sanders did call for an end to Israeli “disproportionate responses to being attacked.” But he didn’t condemn the two massacres in Gaza in the past seven years as he condemned Hamas rocket fire into Israel.

Syria and the Gulf

On Syria, Sanders appears to accept the Western claim that Russia wasn’t really hitting the Islamic State, but only anti-Assad groups. (It should be noted that Russian leaders never promised to strike only at ISIS, as the U.S. press corps widely reported, but rather the Russians vowed to attack ISIS and other terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front.)

Yes, Russia did hit other rebel groups, including some that fight alongside Nusra, but did so to bolster the Syrian army as the major ground force (with the Kurds) to defeat ISIS and Nusra.

Sanders repeated his refrain that the Gulf Arabs need to do more to defeat the Islamic State. But somebody must have gotten to him because he added the line that he’s not asking Saudi Arabia to “invade” Syria, which is exactly what Sanders seemed to be advocating.

The reality is that Saudi Arabia has already been too involved in Syria, sending in well-armed jihadists to overthrow the government which the Saudis view as dominated by the Shiite and Alawite faiths whereas Saudi Arabia favors the fanatical Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam. But military reversals by the Saudi-backed rebels over the past several months prompted Saudi Arabia last month to threaten an outright invasion of Syria, along with Turkey.

President Barack Obama reportedly tamped down the heated war threats from Saudi Arabia and Turkey, heading off what would have threatened a much wider war.

But Sanders – for mildly supporting Palestinian rights and offering muted criticism of Israel – would have been savaged by the feisty AIPAC crowd which expects to hear only encouraging words and reciprocated with love toward Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as they avoided any criticism of Israel and showed no sympathy for the Palestinians.

The packed arena in downtown Washington had a circular stage set up in the middle that appeared to purposely mimic the major parties’ nominating conventions. It was as if AIPAC was saying that it was doing the real nominating.

Pumping Up the Crowd

Both Trump and Clinton mounted the stage to express fierce loyalty to an Israel that they essentially said could do no wrong. Their talking points could have been written by Israel’s right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Clinton lashed out at critics of Israel who promote boycotting Israeli goods as a peaceful way to pressure Israel to make concessions. Instead, she promised to increase military aid to Israel, which already stands at $3 billion a year and more than $100 billion since 1962. She vowed to stop a U.N. Security Council resolution that would set a deadline for the end of Israel’s West Bank occupation — something the Oslo Accords already did.

In a half-hour speech, Clinton only uttered the word “Palestinian” ten times, and mostly in connection with “terrorism.” She briefly called for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Clinton mentioned “settlements” only once, in a passing reference, saying, “Everyone has to do their part by avoiding damaging actions, including with respect to settlements.” Nothing more was said.

With his typical bombast, Trump said no one had studied the Iran nuclear deal as he had, and that his “number one priority” would be to dismantle it. He also said he would not allow the Security Council to impose a settlement in Palestine.

“An agreement imposed by the United Nations would be a total and complete disaster,” he said. “The United States must oppose this resolution and use the power of our veto, which I will use as president 100 percent.”

Trump only used bellicose language toward Palestinians. He cited the killing last week of an American in Israel by “a knife-wielding Palestinian.”

“You don’t reward behavior like that. You cannot do it,” he said. “There’s only one way you treat that kind of behavior. You have to confront it.”

That sounds like a recipe for more bloodshed. Compared to this rhetoric, Sanders’ speech was reasonable. He called on Israel, for instance, to stop stealing Palestinian water. Perhaps Sanders is holding back his real views on Israel and Palestine, fearful that he could not withstand the attacks of the Israel Lobby and a pro-Israel corporate media.

But, in the meantime, his prescription for peace did go not far enough. Once again AIPAC’s apparent stranglehold on U.S.-Middle East policy and on its political candidates seems to snuff out any realistic dream for a resolution of the conflict.

Joe Lauria is a veteran foreign-affairs journalist based at the U.N. since 1990. He has written for the Boston Globe, the London Daily Telegraph, the Johannesburg Star, the Montreal Gazette, the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @unjoe.

10 comments for “Sanders Tip-toes in Criticizing Israel

  1. John Allan Donaldson
    March 24, 2016 at 08:59

    The future of mankind may depend on how well these modest statements that stray somewhat from the AIPAC script are accepted by U.S. citizens.

    • Bob Van Noy
      March 25, 2016 at 08:54

      Thank you Joe Lauria for the insights, and John Allan Donaldson; I’m very concerned that you’re correct about “these modest statements”. That is why I think that Bernie Sanders is our only choice going forward, even if he needs further education. At least he seems capable of listening and changing…

  2. Peter Loeb
    March 24, 2016 at 06:24


    It was encouraging to read Joe Lauria’s article on
    SANders’ speech on Israel and the Middle East.

    In my response to Robert Parry’s article
    of March 22, “The Clinton/Trump ‘AIPAC PANDER-OFF'”
    I addressed many of the same issues. My response
    was titled “Out of Context”, dated March 23, 2016..

    Sanders lacks the belligerance of Clinton and Trump
    but shows a lack of understanding of the basic issues
    in the Palestine/Israeli conflict as well as in Syria.
    After a long, long wait he attacked at last some of
    the crucial issues in the Middle East.

    Perhaps he has not seen any of the videos of Israeli’s
    attacking Palestinians, Palestinian children, demolishing
    Palestinian homes and the like. Perhaps Sanders is
    unaware of the terrorist history of Zionism’s colonial
    invason of Palestine. Perhaps he is a “nice Jewish
    boy” but is still but a “boy” and out of his element.

    He is certainly an avid student of government PR and
    Secretary of State John Kerry’s statements and would it
    appears wuld follow (not lead) whatever neocons he would appoint
    as President.

    His ideas at this time on Syria show him as a follower,
    not a leader should he be in his “revolutionary” presidential
    office. Or perhaps this is merely a reflection of the
    essential difference between being the Senator from
    a tiny state and being a Committee Chair in the Senate…
    or being President of the US.

    We have see Bernie Sanders proclaim “revolution” to
    Americans in a particularly unrevolutionary frame of mind.
    It is difficult to imagine Sanders confronting Israel . Although
    I would guess should he in fact become President, AIPAC
    would find him maleable.

    —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

    • J'hon Doe II
      March 25, 2016 at 19:14

      It is difficult to imagine Sanders confronting Israel. —-Peter Loeb

      Bernie Sanders cut his “socialist” teeth as a young volunteer on an Israeli Kibbutz.
      He grew up in Hebrew/Yiddish rich Brooklyn and Queens NY.
      He is as Culturally Jewish as can be and, therefore, very capable of standing up to pro-Israel pressure, IMHO.

      • Eddie
        March 27, 2016 at 23:21

        Yes, JD II, I for one agree. If we look at people like Jewish-raised Noam Chomsky ( we see a true principled, activist anti-Zionist (among other political stances), but he has seen MAJOR criticisms and attempts to suppress his opinions (see above link) and it is was only his renown in the field of linguistics that kept him from being fired and otherwise successfully persecuted. He has stood up very effectively against the Alan Dershowitzes and other right-wingers. And the Chomskys, Pilgers, Hedges, et al would never get past the initial ‘filters’ of the political selection process, even IF they ever desired to run for political office, so I think we have to be somewhat realistic in our expectations of our political candidates in today’s Zeitgeist.

  3. JWalters
    March 23, 2016 at 19:29

    Bernie moved America’s public discussion forward by talking about the Palestinian people as human beings. He had to do it in a way that would not get him slaughtered in the mainstream media.

    Israel’s “stranglehold” on the media to which you refer is very real. Its origins are in the history that it buries.

  4. Bob Van Noy
    March 23, 2016 at 19:06

    The truth is that Bernie Sanders is the only choice remaining that offers any possibility for a more peaceful American approach to international relations.

  5. Drew Hunkins
    March 23, 2016 at 11:44

    Sanders does indeed deserve a bit of credit in sauntering down a road few ever dare to tread. Of course he could go a lot further with more forceful clarity, but for a mainstream politician right now, this is as good as it’s going to get for awhile.

  6. Sally Snyder
    March 23, 2016 at 10:14

    Here is an article that looks at the pro-Israeli talking points that are regularly adopted by Washington:

    Thanks to the efforts of one Republican strategist, we now know why so many interviews with representatives of the Israeli government sound like they are coming from the mouths of American politicians.

  7. Scott Rickard
    March 23, 2016 at 10:09

    Great piece Joe

Comments are closed.