Palestine activist: Backing Bernie Sanders is the wise choice
As a Palestine solidarity organizer, I’m not in the habit of supporting political candidates from either major party. For almost a year now, there has been spirited debates in activist circles about the merits of backing the presidential campaign of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
He doesn’t even like to talk about it, but when pressed, he proposes no radical departure from the Obama administration’s current foreign policies. However, the typically anti-interventionist American Conservative gave Sanders an overall grade of “B”—a full letter grade higher than any of the other Democratic or Republican contenders—in their foreign policy report card for 2016 presidential candidates.
One issue that was not on the American Conservative’s report card, and which has taken a backseat to other foreign policy concerns in recent debates, is Israel-Palestine. As recent polling suggests, even the Democratic elites are faltering in their support of what was once an unshakeable bipartisan consensus that Israel could do no wrong.
This shift in opinion hasn’t yet taken the form of concrete policy changes. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, for one, is holding fast to her proven record of enabling and whitewashing Israeli violence. She boasted in an op-ed last November that she “requested more assistance for Israel every year” as Secretary of State, promising to “strengthen America’s security commitment to Israel” and “combat” the growing movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
Increasing military aid to Israel and cracking down on BDS are likely to be two of Clinton’s main selling points when she joins Donald Trump in addressing the conservative American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) at their annual policy conference later this month. The lobbying group, which in addition to cheerleading Israeli violence, spent much of the Obama years pushing for a U.S. war with Iran, claims they have invited all of the major presidential candidates to speak. Sanders has not responded to their request, as of press time.
In this light, Sanders’s suggestion that he would maintain a policy of neutrality stands in contrast to Clinton and most of the Republicans (Trump has made contradictory statements regarding neutrality in negotiations).
“All I can tell you,” Sanders said on Tuesday, “is I will make every single effort to bring rational people on both sides together, so that hopefully we can have a level playing field, the United States treating everyone in that region equally.”
As a sane person and a Palestine solidarity activist, I do not take Sanders at his word. I recognize all too well the timidity and tepid centrism of his response and the limitation and concession to Zionism inherent in any discourse of “both sides.” I cringed at his apologia for Israel’s massacre in Gaza in 2014, as well as his decision to join his Senate colleagues in unanimously voting to rearm Israel during that assault.
I don’t think Israel should be treated “equally” to the Palestinians; The U.S. should treat Israel like the serial human rights violator that it is, and isolate it in every way possible. Any paradigm less sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians or more tolerant to Israeli aggression, is a framework I can’t agree with. He and other self-identified progressives in power must never forget this—we should never let them.
But Sanders’s position, while inarguably pro-Israel, is both decidedly not good enough and (given the current state of U.S. discourse on the issue) good enough to merit begrudging but vocal support. It’s telling that Sanders has spoken so little about Israel-Palestine, even in comparison to other foreign policy areas.
He knows Zionism is no longer the trump card with Democratic voters that it once was, and it becomes less and less so each day.
It’s also telling that Sanders’ comments came directly after an upset victory against Clinton in Michigan, which saw him win almost 60 percent of the vote in Dearborn, which has a very large Arab-American population.
No one has promised U.S. Muslims, Arabs, and others with a pro-Palestinian agenda, that Sanders will support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), or depart from the segregationist “two states for two peoples” idea. He will not end U.S. military aid to Israel.
But universal, unequivocal condemnation of all the candidates unwisely ignores the message it would send to elites, if Sanders were to prevail over Clinton—the same Clinton who grinned from ear to ear in photo-ops with Netanyahu and claimed Palestinians in Gaza are not trapped by Israel’s blockade so much as they are “trapped by their leadership.”
For Palestine advocates, publicly stating a preference for Sanders’ meekness on the issue over Clinton’s ardent support for Israel is, to steal an annoying turn of phrase, a place to start—and it’s a place from which more radical critiques can be elaborated and from which more progressive proposals can be defended.