The crowd at J Street conference in Washington stood on his legs and gave a long standing ovation to Senator Bernie Sanders as he entered the stage last week during the progressive group’s annual conference. The very first question he was asked was about his view on military aid to Israel. The Vermont Senator laid out a controversial plan, suggesting he would use the military assistance to Israel to pressure the government to change its policy.
“I would use the leverage of $3.8 billion – it is a lot of money […] we have a right to demand respect for human rights and democracy,” he said. “Some of that $3.8b. should go right now into humanitarian aid in Gaza.” Since that moment, the debate about military aid to Israel became a campaign issue in the Democratic primaries.
The Iowa caucuses, which will formally open the primary season, is 87 days away, and the Democratic Party is moving into a higher gear. Key figures, such as Beto O’Rourke and others who ran out of cash, are leaving the race, while three candidates are still at the top tier: former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
A national Monmouth poll released on Wednesday predicts 23% for both Warren and Biden and 20% for Sanders. The socialist senator from Vermont, who lost his 2016 primary bid to Hillary Clinton, is eager to beat all odds and become the Democratic nominee in 2020. On his way to achieving that goal, he is not staying away from controversy.
Sanders mentioned in his J Street speech that he wishes to become the “first Jewish president,” and on many occasions he brought up his experience as a volunteer in a Kibbutz, insisting that while he is divided with the Israeli government over policy issues, he is not anti-Israel.
His recent remarks, however, raised alarms for moderate Democrats, who emphasized that Sanders’s positions do not represent the mainstream of the party.
“[Cutting aid for Israel] is certainly not the new normal in the sense that nobody else has quite endorsed the policy that [Sanders] endorsed, and a number of other candidates have disagreed with it rather forcefully,” Mark Mellman, president and CEO of Democratic Majority for Israel, told The Jerusalem Post.
“Sen. Sanders represents his own opinion,” he added, “but that is not an opinion that is widely shared in the Democratic Party at all. Not among the presidential candidates and certainly not among Democrats in Congress.”
When asked about the warm reaction from the crowd at J Street for Sanders’s plan, Mellman said that it does not represent the majority of Jewish Democrats.
“I wouldn’t mistake the audience at J Street for the Democratic Party, just as I wouldn’t mistake the audience at any conference for the party as a whole,” he said. “That just is not a reasonable characterization. Is that what the J Street audience wants to hear? No question about it. Is that what the Democratic Majority for Israel audience wants to hear? No. Is there a segment of the community that likes those views? Yes. But that’s a pretty small segment.”
He added that Sanders would cooperate with the Israeli government, but the relations between the two administrations would be different from what we got to know.
“Would he be open to working with some Israeli government on some issues? I’m sure he would. Will he be like Donald Trump? Certainly not. Would he be like Barack Obama? Certainly not,” he said.
Republicans, on the other hand, slammed Sanders for saying he would cut aid to Israel and suggested that he lacks the understanding about the mechanism of the US military aid to Israel.
“It’s disturbing and it highlights this far-left trend in the Democratic Party,” Neil Strauss, national spokesman for the Republican Jewish Coalition, told the Post. “Conditioning military aid to Israel is something that was so far outside of the mainstream just six or 12 months ago, and all of a sudden, because Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg have now embraced this idea, it’s becoming very mainstream.
“To talk down to Israel like we are dictating their internal security policy, that’s just not how we speak to, and act with, any of our other allies,” Strauss continued.
“He says he wants to take some of that money and give it right down to the people in Gaza. Either he doesn’t understand, or he doesn’t care, that the people who run Gaza, who administer it, is Hamas. What he is proposing is giving money to a terrorist group and hurting the people of Gaza.”
Strauss said that while some Democratic hopefuls are claiming to have a specific problem with the policies of Benjamin Netanyahu, in fact, these positions are at odds with most of the public in Israel.
“[They] would try to tell you, ‘Well, this is not anti-Israel, it’s anti-Netanyahu.’ This is a myth, because this is basically where Blue and White is [as well as the Likud], and where the Israeli people are. This is the policies that they’ve voted for. So, really, this isn’t anti Netanyahu; this is anti the overwhelming majority of the people of Israel.”
MATTHEW DUSS, a foreign policy adviser for Sanders, told the Post that focusing on the aid mechanisms misses the point, which is opening a broader discussion about using U.S. aid “to diminish conflict and promote real security.”
“The point Senator Sanders was making is that there should be a reassessment of how U.S. military aid is given, not only in Israel but with a number of partners, to make sure that aid is genuinely promoting security and is not supporting violations of human rights,” he said.
“This is about an affirmative, positive vision of American leadership,” Duss added. “It’s not good enough for us just to pour all this money into buying and selling weapons. The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is a human rights issue that has also a serious security impact, on Palestinians but also on Israelis and the region. Sen. Sanders wants to look at ways to use the tools of foreign policy to help de-escalate conflicts and move toward peace and real security. A Gaza that lives in economic stability helps improve the security of Israel.”
When Sen. Sanders is speaking about conditioning aid to Israel, this is a stance that many in Israel, both on the Left and on the Right, strongly oppose and consider harmful. What is your response?
Duss: “This is a conversation from the perspective of US policy about Americans not wanting their money to go to support policies and practices that they disagree with. This is not specific to Israel. I think this is a debate that’s rising in relation to a bunch of other countries, and it’s long overdue. US taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be going to practices that contradict our own interests and values. If there are instances where they do, we need to look at how that money is being used.”
“As he has said repeatedly, Bernie believes in a strong US-Israel relationship, and he absolutely supports Israel’s right to exist in peace,” he continued. “He recognizes that Israel has very legitimate security needs and supports Israel in addressing those security needs. But when it comes to policies of the occupation, settlements, practices like home demolitions, and other policies that violate international humanitarian law and foreclose the possibility of a Palestinian state, he believes it’s important to make clear that US dollars should not support those things.”
Where does Sen. Sanders stand on the situation in Gaza in which a terrorist organization controls the Gaza Strip? As we know, aid to Gaza on many occasions ends up in the hands of Hamas.
Duss: “Senator Sanders certainly recognizes the horrible role Hamas is playing in Gaza. Hamas launching rockets and digging tunnels into Israel, Sen. Sanders absolutely supports Israel’s right to defend itself from these attacks, and pressuring Hamas to stop them. There’s Hamas’ oppression of the people of Gaza; Their own corruption is a huge problem. Not to mention their position that Israel should not exist – needless to say – something Senator Sanders rejects.”
“But that’s one part of the problem in Gaza,” Duss continued. “There are 2 million people under blockade, in a humanitarian crisis. And you’ve got the Israeli role and the Egyptian role in the blockade contributing to that crisis. You’ve got the division between the PA and Hamas. So, as he said, this is not easy. But as he has also said, trying to make a discussion about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza all about fear of Hamas dehumanizes Palestinians. The bottom line is that the basic human rights of the people in Gaza shouldn’t be held hostage to this political process.”
During the Trump administration, there have been many actions taken in favor of Israel, whether it’s moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights, and other actions regarding the Palestinians, like closing the PLO office in Washington and closing the consulate in east Jerusalem. Which – if any – of these actions would Sen. Sanders reverse if he got a chance?
Duss: “First, he would welcome the Palestinian representation back to Washington, and would reopen a U.S. representation to the Palestinians in Jerusalem with the understanding that East Jerusalem is where the capital of the Palestinian state will be, and where the United States embassy to that state will also be. Reversing Trump’s embassy move would not be a first step. But as he has said, if there is no cooperation on that from the Israelis, then moving the embassy back to Tel Aviv is something that’s on the table. It would not be a first choice.”
“On some of those other steps, there are certain things that he would reverse,” he continued. “Trump’s approach has been very damaging, no question. Trump’s approach toward the Palestinians has simply been to try and destroy the Palestinians as an independent political entity. Senator Sanders has said many times that the Palestinians have very legitimate claims and rights in this land as well. And that’s what the two-state solution is about. So rather than focusing on Trump, the focus should be on what steps the U.S. should take to help secure the rights and security of both peoples. ”
Duss also pushed back when asked about Trump’s actions in favor of Israel. “What is Trump giving Israel? I mean, he’s moving the embassy, he’s giving some things to Netanyahu to help Netanyahu’s reelection. That didn’t work,” he said. “He pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. Iran is now doing worse things in the region and is now moving toward starting enrichment again. He has a crazy, unpredictable policy on Syria – what is Trump actually doing for Israel? He says nice things, but his actual behavior has been massively destabilizing. So, in terms of Israel’s genuine security, I would say Trump has been a disaster for the state of Israel,” he added.
On Sunday, Sanders received an endorsement from Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of the most controversial figures to the pro-Israel community, a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement who used antisemitic tropes on a few occasions, and just last week refused to vote in favor of recognizing the Armenian genocide and was the only Democrat not to support sanctions against Turkey.
Asked what Senator Sanders thinks about the criticism of Omar’s record, Duss said: “Congresswoman Omar can speak for herself on her decisions on those votes. I’ll just say that on a range of policies, particularly with regard to the US role in the world, the goal of the US playing a more productive progressive role around the world to promote human dignity and human rights, Senator Sanders and Congresswoman Omar agree.”
“He has watched as she [was under] very severe attacks by name, by the president, who has whipped up hysteria against her,” he added. “She’s someone who endures harassment, threats of violence constantly. And Sen. Sanders feels very strongly that that’s completely unacceptable. So I think in addition to the areas of policy where they agree in their vision for a country that is welcoming of immigrants and refugees, I think that’s also something that he feels it’s very important to stand up to.”
Can Israelis be sure that if Sanders makes it to the White House, relations between the two countries will stay the same?
Duss: “I think Israelis can be absolutely sure that President Sanders, as he has said repeatedly, is committed to the security of the state of Israel. And I understand that he is talking about U.S. foreign policy in a way that is different from others, that many in Israel haven’t heard before. He has a much more progressive vision of America’s role in the world. But again, if you look at Senator Sanders’ history, there is no candidate in this race that has as personal an attachment to the state of Israel as he does. And I think there are many in Israel who share his vision.”
It has been 13 years since the Palestinian Authority held its last elections. It also seems like no one there is waiting to sign a peace agreement. Can Sanders be aggressive to the Palestinians as well?
Duss: “Yes, absolutely. Obviously, the Palestinians need to make changes both in terms of elections in the PA and dealing with the split between the West Bank and Gaza. Certainly, Senator Sanders would use U.S. pressure to kind of push toward that as president.”
To push Hamas out of power, for example?
Duss: “It worked out very poorly the last time the U.S. tried to remove Hamas from power. The U.S. isn’t very good at regime change. The focus is going to be to use US policies and US aid to support and empower those who want to make peace and build responsible, accountable government. And part of that I think is going to do be empower those leaders amongst the Palestinians and showing them that diplomacy works.”
“One of the things that Senator Sanders believes needs to happen is that the PA needs to start strengthening its own democratic institutions,” he added. “The repression of Palestinian activists, the banning of Palestinian websites by the PA, this needs to end.”