On 21 March 2016, Bernie Sanders delivered a crucial speech at his campaign rally in Salt Lake City (Utah) in which he outlined his views on the Middle East through a set of prepared remarks, categorically talking about ISIS, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and, of course, Israel-Palestine.
While the speech did reaffirm the progressively dissentious, intrepid, and cosmopolitan statesman that Bernie has always been, it threw some shockers as well with respect to his established ideological legacy and political history. If not shockers, then definitely spoilers. Not only does it contradict his past foreign policy approach, but it is also problematic in its own right.
The Two-State Solution
While supporting the ‘two-state solution’, Bernie vehemently argued that Israel is a close ally of America and that the latter is “committed not just to guaranteeing Israel’s survival, but also to make sure that its people have a right to live in peace and security”. He also said that if elected president, he would ensure the advancement of the Israel-US partnership.
While that is a typical hot-start for any routine pro-Israeli American politician, it sounds acrid coming from a humanist-pacifist like Bernie who has routinely stood up against the diversion of taxpayers’ money to perpetuate violent overseas conflicts. And in this context, the US-Israel partnership is a liability for progressives because it reflexively drives America to take sides against a certain set of people, and perpetuate the heavy asymmetry in violence.
Nevertheless, Bernie also talked about a few things that can easily infuriate the dominant pro-Israel lobby in the Congress. He not only explicitly mentioned that Palestine is under the ‘occupation’ of Israel, but also decried Netanyahu’s insidious policy of building settlements in the West Bank.
Bernie was quick to mention Palestine’s ‘right to self-determination’, in addition to highlighting the socioeconomic decadence and material ruination of Gaza, particularly referring to the dismal unemployment and poverty statistics. Most critically, he reasserted his dismay at Israel’s brutal 2014 offensive in Gaza, called ‘Operation Protective Edge’, drawing attention to the indiscriminate bombings of non-combatant infrastructure. Where is the lapse, then?
Unwavering Support to Israel
Well, each time Bernie talked about Palestinian well-being, it came after he had asserted his unconditional support for the Israeli state. Why must Israeli security (and de facto existence) be precursory to Palestinian well-being, and not concomitant to it? Such a position, though, should be a no-brainer given Bernie’s Jewish background and familial history of Nazi persecution in Poland.
But does that really warrant omission of the realities on the ground? Does that entail not talking about the fact that Israeli practices in occupied Palestine are a complete negation of the same ‘common values’ between the US and Israel that Bernie talked about in his speech – those of “democratic principles, civil rights, and rule of law”? Why would Bernie not talk about the massive financial burden that his country’s partnership with Israel puts on the everyday American citizen?
The fact is that America provides Israel $10.2 million in military aid each day (while giving the Palestinians $0 in military aid). In other words, American taxpayers give Israel $3.7 billion per year. This is the same money, which facilitated Israel’s reckless military adventures in Gaza in 2014 – marked by indiscriminate bombings of schools, hospitals, and heavily populated civilian neighbourhoods.
Bernie’s Contradictory Stance
This is the same money, which has kept Israel disproportionately bolstered in one of the most asymmetric conflicts in the world. The Bernie that talked about advancing the US-Israel strategic partnership (which stipulates the continuation of American defence aid till FY 2018) is the same Bernie who consistently denounced lavish overseas spending through direct interventions or proxy conflicts – from Vietnam to Iraq.
This is also the same Bernie who landed up in Nicaragua in 1985 as Burlington’s mayor in open defiance of the Reagan administration’s policy of using taxpayers’ money to fund a violent proxy war against the country’s left-wing Sandinista government. This is also the same Bernie who in 1997, superbly argued against President Clinton’s proposal to bail the repressive Indonesian regime of General Suharto out of an economic crisis. This is also the same Bernie whose current election manifesto features working for the progress of Puerto Rico – an American protectorate in Micronesia ravaged by an economic crisis, thanks to a small group of Wall Street hedge-fund billionaires.
To round it off, this is also the same Bernie who says the following in his political autobiography:
[…] as progressives, we understood that we all live in one world […] If children in Nicaragua were suffering because of US policy, it was our responsibility to try to change that policy.
Well, I guess Palestinian children are exceptions to this belief of cross-cultural empathy.
Bernie’s Views on Israel Are Bold for a POTUS Candidate
But, it would be grossly unfair to discredit Bernie’s pacifist-humanist impartiality on this issue. His crisp labelling of Israel’s forceful appropriation of Palestinian water reserves and withholding Palestinian revenue for itself as “not acceptable” is a bold stride, especially for a POTUS candidate. Moreover, Bernie took care to not simplify Hamas as a “terrorist organisation” (while denouncing its indiscriminate rocket firing), which is not quite a recognition of its democratic legitimacy but also not a wholesale dismissal of the organisation either.
He also argued that ending the occupation would mean “establishing mutually agreed upon borders”. However, there is a major catch here – he missed a crucial specification by not mentioning which borders he was talking about (the pre- or post-1967 lines). This particular point has been a long-standing reason behind the intractability of the Israel-Palestine conflict, with Israel wholly refuting the pre-1967 ‘Green Line’ and Palestine attesting to it.
Bernie also avoided narrowing down the ‘self-determination’ frame: It could literally mean anything, and not necessarily a full sovereign statehood. Specifying the nature of this right was radically imperative for Bernie, and sadly, he leaped over it.
Bernie’s domestic policy bouquet sure looks strikingly ‘radical’ in comparison to the Obama administration’s. However, his agenda for Israel-Palestine seems to be less so, veering towards ‘continuity’ than ‘change’.
In fact, the Middle East doctrine of Obama-Kerry was more path-breaking and deviant than what Bernie might offer as POTUS. When in 2011, Obama in his speech to the Congress clearly argued that the pre-1967 lines must be the premise for further negotiations, he brought about a historic doctrinal shift in US policy on Israel-Palestine. He even explicitly recognised the Hamas-Fatah unity government in Gaza. But then again, he also did everything to keep the US-Israel defence partnership alive and breathing for the next half a decade (at least). Bernie won’t act any differently, it seems.
Sanders’ Political Legacy
The Sandersian political legacy speaks of deep empathy beyond national borders – true to progressive ‘one world’ ideals. As a Congressman, Bernie seemed to have managed to steer clear of statist geopolitics for the longest time for the sake of his humanist ideals.
But, Israel-Palestine looks like a disturbing aberration – one that stares at your hopeful face and raises the most befuddling questions. Not because of his persistent reassertion of Israel’s ‘Right to Exist’, but largely because of his unwavering commitment to the US-Israel strategic partnership.
Notably, Bernie’s position on Israel-Palestine complicates his stature as a radical statesman and provides a reality check to his ardent followers, validating that political idealism can only rarely complete a full circle in the real world, which is still very much governed by conventional notions of national security and arithmetical geo-strategy.
[This piece was published on 17 May 2016 in The Quint]