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.
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 It died in May 1999, when its five-year interim period ended, after which Israel should have withdrawn and a Palestinian state should have been created.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.