Sanders is changing the discourse on the Israel-Palestine conflict, while Clinton is as extreme as Netanyahu

The Brooklyn debate is a watershed moment. Bernie is pushing back against pro-Israel bias; Hillary is embracing it

Published April 16, 2016 10:29AM (EDT)

Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Benjamin Netanyahu (Reuters/Brian Snyder/Katherine Taylor/Nir Elias/Photo montage by Salon)
Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Benjamin Netanyahu (Reuters/Brian Snyder/Katherine Taylor/Nir Elias/Photo montage by Salon)

"We are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity."

These are truly rare words in U.S. politics, yet they are the words Bernie Sanders uttered in the presidential debate Thursday night.

Replace "Palestinian" with any other people in this statement, and it would be completely uncontroversial. This is how extreme the U.S. is on Israel. But Bernie Sanders is beginning to push back against the dogma.

"If we are ever going to bring peace to that region which has seen so much hatred and so much war, we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity," he said in the debate.

"We cannot continue to be one-sided. There are two sides to the issue," Sanders continued.

Recognition that the conflict in Israel-Palestine has more than one side, and acknowledgement of the Palestinian people as anything other than "terrorists," is a true rarity in the American political establishment.

The brutal, illegal Israeli military occupation Palestinians have lived under for almost 50 years is virtually never mentioned. The mass forced exile of the majority of the Palestinian population and their inability to return, the Palestinians killed and wounded daily by occupation forces, the crippling siege of Gaza — these are all off the table.

In mainstream U.S. politics, the Palestinians are almost invariably seen as mere trouble for Israel, which considers the indigenous Arabs to be a "demographic threat."

When Hillary Clinton talks about the Palestinians, this is precisely the kind of image she invokes. In the debate, she characterized Palestinians simply as threats to Israel. Each time she spoke, she fearmongered about the militant group Hamas.

Sanders pushed back.

Ignoring Palestinian oppression

"I read Secretary Clinton's statement speech before AIPAC," he said in the debate, referring to the 2016 conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most influential pro-Israel group.

"I heard virtually no discussion at all about the needs of the Palestinian people. Almost none in that speech."

Sanders didn't hear any discussion of the needs of the Palestinian people because there was none. As Salon reported, Clinton did not once acknowledge Israel's five-decade-long illegal military occupation of the Palestinian territories in her 4,000-word AIPAC speech.

The few instances Clinton mentioned the Palestinians were overwhelmingly negative; she characterized them as terrorists and troublemakers.

"You gave a major speech to AIPAC, which obviously deals with the Middle East crisis, and you barely mentioned the Palestinians," Sanders scolded.

"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," he asserted, to applause from the audience.

Sanders was referring to Israel's hard-line right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who, when he finishes his present fourth term, will be the longest-serving head of state in Israel's almost 70-year history.

Clinton has pledged multiple times that, if she is elected president, she will meet with Netanyahu in her first month in office.

In the debate, Clinton did not budge a bit on her extreme position, refusing to even criticize Israel.

Israel's disproportionate attacks

Sanders stood by his statement that Israel's ruthless bombing in its 2014 war Gaza was "disproportionate and led to the unnecessary loss of innocent life."

"Now, if you're asking not just me, but countries all over the world, was that a disproportionate attack, the answer is that I believe it was, and let me say something else," he said.

Sanders is absolutely correct. The world's leading human rights organizations and the United Nations have explicitly said that Israel committed war crimes in its 2014 assault, in its shelling of civilian areas such as shelters for displaced people, hospitals, schools, homes, places of worship and more.

Since then, Israeli soldiers have admitted the same. Israel Defense Forces officers told an Israeli NGO that they were ordered to shoot “anyone you spot that you can be positive is not the IDF” — to attack “any person you see,” and to “shoot to kill.”

They also admitted that they shot at innocent Palestinian civilians because they were bored.

In the debate, Sanders corrected the misstatement he made in his New York Daily News interview, emphasizing that more than 10,000 Palestinian civilians were wounded and another 1,500 were killed in Israel's brutal war.

Clinton refused to directly condemn Israel's use of disproportionate force in Gaza, even after Sanders asked her multiple times.

"You evaded the question," he said.

"I will certainly be willing to answer it," she replied, but then totally failed to do so, instead fearmongering again about Hamas.

Blockade of Gaza

Instead of acknowledging Israel's oppression of the Palestinians, Clinton relied on pro-Israel myths.

"Israel left Gaza," she claimed in the debate. "They took out all the Israelis. They turned the keys over to the Palestinian people."

This statement is very misleading.

Yes, in 2005 Israel did withdraw its illegal settlements from Gaza, but these settlements were illegal in the first place, and international law required that they be removed — along with the still extant and ever-growing settlements in the West Bank.

While Clinton is right that the Israeli government did take out the settlers, she is wrong that it "turned the keys over to the Palestinian people."

When the Islamist political party Hamas was democratically elected in 2006, Israel worked with the Palestinian Authority to attempt to prevent it from consolidating power. The U.S. even plotted a violent coup to overthrow the Palestinians’ elected government.

Since this time, Israel has imposed a crippling siege on Gaza. The Israeli government controls virtually everything that enters the densely populated strip, and has put Gazans “on a diet,” restricting the food allowed in.

A U.S. government cable released by WikiLeaks quotes Israeli officials admitting that the blockade keeps Gaza's economy “functioning at the lowest level possible consistent with avoiding a humanitarian crisis.”

Israeli government officials told the U.S. they are pursuing policies to “keep Gaza’s economy on the brink of collapse.”

Legal experts say Israel's almost decade-long blockade of Gaza amounts to an effective continuation of the occupation. Israel continues to exercise control over Gaza's border crossings, waters, airspace, electromagnetic field and even population registry.

U.N. rights experts have said since 2011 that Israel’s siege of Gaza is illegal.

Clinton never once even mentioned the blockade.

Blaming the victim

"I don't know how you run a country when you are under constant threat," Clinton proclaimed of Israel. "You have a right to defend yourself."

Yet this statement is significantly more true for Palestinians. If Israel has the right to defend itself, do not the Palestinians too?

Clinton blames the Palestinians entirely for the violence, acting as though Israel is completely innocent, as though the military occupier is the victim, not the people who have lived under Israel's illegal military occupation for five decades.

"I can tell you right now I have been there with Israeli officials going back more than 25 years that they do not seek this kind of attacks," Clinton insisted in the debate.

Yet Palestinians would say Israel does invite such attacks by continuing its illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories; that Israel does invite such attacks by brutally repressing nonviolent Palestinian resistance against its illegal occupation, killing and imprisoning peaceful activists; that Israel does invite such attacks by demonizing all peaceful resistance, including the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

Israel and its supporters make it clear that Palestinians have no legitimate means of resisting its crimes — so, like the South Africans living under apartheid, the only option they have to resort to is violence.

"Where is the Palestinian Gandhi?" naive observers often ask.

"There have been many Palestinians Gandhis," Palestinians reply. "They are buried in unmarked graves in Israel, or languishing in Israeli prisons."

Changing the discourse

Clinton's virulent hawkishness and ardent pro-Israel bias in the Brooklyn debate only further demonstrate how she does not just represent the establishment vis-à-vis big money and corruption; she also embodies establishment foreign policy and militarism.

Thursday's debate shows Clinton is not just the candidate of Wall Street; she is also the candidate of the war machine.

Sanders still has a lot of problems on Israel-Palestine. During the 2014 war, he shouted down protesters. And just before the debate, Sanders buckled under pro-Israel pressure and suspended his Jewish outreach coordinator over her expletive-filled criticisms of Prime Minister Netanyahu's horrific war crimes in Gaza.

Yet, in the past months, Sanders has grown a lot on the issue. He leaves a lot to be desired on Israel-Palestine, but has made large strides.

Sanders has shown, much more than any other presidential candidate, that he reacts to popular pressure. Leftist grassroots activist have pushed him on Israel-Palestine, just as they have on Black Lives Matter, and he has responded. He cares about the people and what they think.

This new anti-establishment presidential candidate is not just shifting popular discourse around income inequality and the exploitation inherent in the capitalist system; more and more, he is also challenging U.S. imperialism, making "regime change" a household phrase — and one with negative connotations.

In debate after debate, pundits have insisted that Sanders is "weak" on foreign policy. What they really mean is he is not hawkish enough.

It may seem like it's not a lot to ask for American politicians to call for respecting the dignity of the Palestinian people, but Sanders is one of the few who have done so.

When Sanders declared "I believe the United States and the rest of the world have got to work together to help the Palestinian people" in the debate, it may have sounded like an incredibly moderate statement. That's because it is. But the U.S. is so far to the right on Israel, a presidential candidate saying this is incredibly significant.

The fact that the first presidential candidate to do this on such a large scale also happens to be the first major Jewish presidential candidate is even more symbolic.

Sanders' support proves that the Israel-Palestine conflict is not a conflict between Jews and Arabs; it is a struggle against injustice, racism and colonialism.

In the debate, the audience recognized the importance of what Sanders was saying; at one moment, someone shouted "Free Palestine!"

In the U.S., the government's undying support for Israel is unquestionable — practically sacrosanct.

By challenging this dogma, Sanders is opening up an incredibly important political space that's hasn't existed before.

By Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

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Bernie Sanders Elections 2016 Hillary Clinton Israel Palestine Presidential Debates