The Vermont senator’s fans have been circulating a 20-year-old speech in which he blatantly objects to attacks on Israel, but his current views are harder to pin down.
WASHINGTON — Bernie Sanders is often perceived as an “alternative” to presidential candidates more concerned with pleasing their Wall Street donors than voters. But when it comes to his stance on Israel and Palestine, the independent senator from Vermont, who is running for president as a Democrat, begins to look less decisively different than the rest of the pack.
Sanders made headlines in August, when a dialogue with pro-Palestine human rights activists at a Vermont town hall boiled over into frustration after Sanders chided Israel for its actions rather than condemning its many war crimes. The interaction occurred near the end of Israel’s brutal assault on the people of Gaza last summer, during which Israeli soldiers deliberately targeted hospitals and U.N. shelters and killed thousands of civilians. Last July, Sanders joined the rest of the U.S. Senate by unanimously voting to support Israel’s actions.
The conversation was captured on video and widely circulated. Writing in April for Bustle, Chris Tognotti summarized the breakdown in communication:
“Basically, as Sanders explained his view — he claimed that Israel ‘overreacted’ and wrongly bombed U.N. facilities, but the country was also faced with Hamas-fired rockets shot from populated areas — he was met with an angry interruption. Before you know it, he was yelling ‘shut up,’ and a woman in the back of the room was yelling ‘F**k Israel!’ It was ugly.”
Philip Weiss, of Mondoweiss, reported that Sanders “brings ISIS out of nowhere into the discussion” in a strained attempt to defend the militarism of the state of Israel — militarism supported by billions in U.S. aid annually.
Watch presidential candidate Bernie Sanders lose his cool when a women questions him on Israel:
Since then, protesters have continued to pressure Sanders on his stance on Israel, including at last summer’s climate march:
Sen. Bernie Sanders at NYC climate change event called on to answer for his vote backing the Gaza slaughter pic.twitter.com/Ej78QI1zoe
— Max Blumenthal (@MaxBlumenthal) September 21, 2014
Recently Sanders’ supporters have pointed to a video of a 1988 appearance by Sanders during which he called Israel’s attacks on Palestinians “reprehensible.” Alternet staffer Zaid Jilani summarized the video earlier this month:
“He also offered criticism of extremist rhetoric in Arab countries that were calling for the destruction of Israel, which is fairly boilerplate for American politicians. But it got more interesting when reporters asked Sanders what concrete steps the United States should take.
‘The United States of America is pouring billions of dollars into arms and into other types of aid in the Middle East. Has the United States of America used its clout, the tremendous clout that it has by providing all kinds of aid to the Middle East, to demand that these countries sit down and talk about a reasonable settlement which will guarantee Israel’s sovereignty, which must be guaranteed, but will begin to deal with the rights of Palestinian refugees,’ said Sanders.”
Yet when it comes to more recent statements, journalists describe Sanders as difficult to pin down on foreign policy issues, including Israel. Josh Nathan-Kazis, writing in June for Forward, noted that “a search of the Congressional Record reveals very few statements about Israel by Sanders on the floor of the House or the Senate,” but “in February 2015, Sanders was the first Senator to announce that he would skip Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress.”
Nathan-Kazis reports that Sanders does have limited ties to AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group that’s trying to drive the U.S. to war with Iran:
“In Vermont, a small group of AIPAC-linked Jewish activists do have Sanders’ ear on Israel-related matters. Yoram Samets, a Burlington businessman and a member of AIPAC’s national council, said that he has been in touch with Sanders for the past decade, but that Sanders does not sign any AIPAC-backed letters. His Vermont colleague Senator Patrick Leahy does not, either.”
But Sanders’ campaign refused to respond to any of the reporter’s attempts to clarify the senator’s position. Instead, he quotes Aaron Keyak, a Democratic political consultant: “When I see Senator Bernie Sanders, I see someone who is a typical pro-Israel Jewish Democrat.”
Until Sanders makes newer statements, voters must assume that all major 2016 candidates support Israel’s occupation of Palestine and Israel’s apartheid policies, with third parties representing the only real alternative.