By Senator Bernard Sanders
(Salt Lake City, Utah March 21, 2016) — Let me begin that I have a deep personal connection to Israel – and I am fairly certain I am the only U.S. presidential candidate to have ever lived on a kibbutz for a while.
America and Israel are united by historical ties. We are united by culture. We are united by our values, including a deep commitment to democratic principles, civil rights, and the rule of law.
Israel is one of America’s closest allies, and we – as a nation – are committed not just to guaranteeing Israel’s survival, but alsoto its people’s right to live in peace and security.
To my mind, as friends, we are obligated to speak the truth as we see it. This is what real friendship demands, especially in difficult times.
Our disagreements will come and go, and we must weather them constructively.
America and Israel have faced great challenges together. We have supported each other, and we will continue to do just that as we face one of the greatest challenges facing any country: resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I am here to tell you that, if elected president, I will work tirelessly to advance the cause of peace as a partner and as a friend to Israel. But to be successful, we have to be a friend not only to Israel, but to the Palestinian people, where in Gaza, they suffer from an unemployment rate of 44 percent – the highest in the world – and a poverty rate nearly equal to that. There is too much suffering in Gaza to be ignored.
The road towards peace will be difficult. We all know that. I cannot tell you exactly how it will look – I do not believe anyone can – but I believe firmly that the only prospect for peace is the successful negotiation of a two-state solution.
The first step in the road ahead is to set the stage for resuming the peace process through direct negotiations. This is no small task. It means building confidence on both sides, offering some signs of good faith, and then proceeding to talks when conditions permit them to be constructive.
This will require compromises on both sides, but I believe it can be done. I believe that Israel, the Palestinians, and the international community can, must, and will rise to do what needs to be done to achieve a lasting peace.
Peace will require the unconditional recognition by all of Israel’s right to exist. It will require an end to attacks of all kinds against Israel.
Peace will require that organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah renounce their efforts to undermine the security of Israel. It will require the entire world to recognize Israel.
Peace has to mean security for every Israeli from violence.
But peace also means security for every Palestinian. It means achieving self-determination, civil rights, and economic wellbeing for the Palestinian people.
Peace will mean ending what amounts to the occupation of Palestinian territory, establishing mutually agreed upon borders,and pulling back settlements in the West Bank, just as Israel did in Gaza – once considered an unthinkable move on Israel’s part.That’s why I join much of the international community, including the U.S. State Department and European Union, in voicing my concern that Israel’s recent expropriation of an additional 579 acres of land in the West Bank undermines the peace process and, ultimately, Israeli security as well.
It is absurd for elements within the Netanyahu government to suggest that building more settlements in the West Bank is the appropriate response to the most recent violence. It is also not acceptable that the Netanyahu government decided to withhold hundreds of millions of Shekels in tax revenue from the Palestinians, which it is supposed to collect on their behalf.
But, by the same token, it is unacceptable for President Abbas to call for the abrogation of the Oslo Agreement when the goal should be ending the violence.
Peace will also mean ending the economic blockade of Gaza. And it will mean a sustainable and equitable distribution of precious water resources so that Israel and Palestine can both thrive as neighbors. Right now, Israel controls 80 percent of the water reserves in the West Bank. Inadequate water supply has contributed to the degradation and desertification of Palestinian land. A lasting a peace will have to recognize Palestinians are entitled to control their own lives, and there is nothing human life needs more than water.
Peace will require strict adherence by both sides to the tenets of international humanitarian law. This includes Israeli ending disproportionate responses to being attacked, even though any attack on Israel is unacceptable.
We recently saw a dramatic example of just how important this idea is. In 2014, the decades-old conflict escalated once more as Israel launched a major military campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli offensive came after weeks of indiscriminate rocket fire into its territory, and the kidnapping of Israel citizens.
Of course, I strongly object to Hamas’ long held position that Israel does not have the right to exist. Of course, I strongly condemned indiscriminate rocket fire by Hamas into Israeli territory, and Hamas’ use of civilian neighborhoods to launch those attacks. I condemn the fact that Hamas diverted funds and materials for much-needed construction projects designed to improve the quality of life of the Palestinian people, and instead used those funds to construct a network of tunnels for military purposes.
However, let me be very clear: I – along with many supporters of Israel – spoke out strongly against the Israeli counter attacks that killed nearly 1,500 civilians, and wounded far more. I condemned the bombing of hospitals, schools and refugee camps.
Today, Gaza is still largely in ruins. The international community must come together to help Gaza recover. That doesn’t mean rebuilding factories that produce bombs and missiles”, – but it does mean rebuilding schools, homes and hospitals that are vital to the future of the Palestinian people.
These are difficult subjects. They are hard to talk about both for many Americans, and for Israelis. I recognize that, but it is clear to me that the path to peace will require tapping into our shared humanity to make hard but just decisions.
I cannot tell you when peace will be achieved between Israel and the Palestinians. No one knows the exact order that compromises will have to be made to reach a viable two-state solution. But as we undertake that work together, America will continue its unwavering commitment to the safety of Israeli citizens and the country of Israel.
Of course, beyond the Palestinian question, Israel finds itself in the midst of a region in severe upheaval.
First, the so-called Islamic State – ISIS – threatens the securityof the entire region and beyond, including our own country and our allies. Secretary of State Kerry was right to say that ISIS is committing genocide, and there is no doubt in my mind that the United States must continue to participate in an international coalition to destroy this barbaric organization.
So far, this effort has had some important successes, as airstrikes have degraded ISIS’s military capacity, and the group has lost more than 20 percent of its territory in the past year.
But we are entering a difficult period in the campaign against ISIS.
The government in Baghdad has yet to achieve a sustainablepolitical order that unites Iraq’s various ethnic and sectarian factions, which has limited its ability to sustain military victoriesagainst ISIS. More inclusive, stable governance in Iraq will be vital to inflict a lasting defeat against ISIS.
Otherwise, ISIS could regain its influence or another, similar organization may spring up in its place.
In Syria, the challenges are even more difficult. The fractured natured of the civil war has often diluted the fight against ISIS there – exemplified by the Russian airstrikes that prioritized hitting anti-Assad fighters rather than ISIS. And, just like in Iraq, ISIS cannot be defeated until the groups that take territory from ISIS can responsibly govern the areas they take back. Ultimately, that will require a political framework for all of Syria.
The U.S. must also play a greater role disrupting the financing of ISIS and efforts on the Internet to turn disaffected youth into the next generation of terrorists.
While the U.S. has an important role to play in defeating ISIS, it must be led by the countries in the region, some of whom have for too long not only turned a blind eye to violent extremism, but have encouraged and funded it. I agree with Jordanian King Abdullah who said this is nothing less than a battle for the soul of Islam and that the Muslim nations themselves will have to win it on the ground.
Now, I am not suggesting that Saudi Arabia or other states in the region invade other countries, nor unilaterally intervene in conflicts driven in part by sectarian tensions.
What I am saying is that the major powers in the region – especially the Gulf States – have to take greater responsibility for the future of the Middle East.
What I am saying is that countries like Qatar – which intends to spend up to $200 billion to host the 2022 World Cup – can do more to contribute to the fight Against ISIS. They have $200 billion to host a soccer event, yet have done very little to fight ISIS.
What I am saying is that countries in the region – like Saudi Arabia, which has the world’s 4th largest defense budget – has to dedicate itself more fully to the destruction of ISIS, instead of other military adventures like the one it is pursuing right now in Yemen.
And keep in mind that while a dangerous enemy, ISIS has only 30,000 fighters. So when we ask the nations in the region to stand up to do more against ISIS, we know it is surely within their capability to do.
The United States has every right in the world to insist on these points. Remember it was the United States that reinstalled the royal family in Kuwait after Saddam Hussein’s invasion in 1990– at the cost of American lives. And it was the United States that defended the Gulf States from further aggression from Iraq by keeping Saddam Hussein contained for over a decade.
But wealthy and powerful nations in the region can no longer expect the United States to do their work for them. We are not the policeman of the world. As we continue a strongly coordinated effort against ISIS, the United States and other western nations should be supportive of efforts to fight ISIS andal-Qaeda – but it is the countries in the region that have to stand up against these violently extremist and brutal organizations.
I realize that will not be easy. I realize that there are disagreements between different countries in the region about how ISIS should be dealt with. I realize different countries have different priorities. But we can help set the agenda and mobilize stronger collective action to defeat ISIS in a lasting way.
The second major challenge in the region is the Syrian Civil War itself – one of the worst humanitarian disasters in recent history.
After five years of brutal conflict, the only solution in Syria is a negotiated political settlement. Those who advocate for stronger military involvement by the U.S. to oust Assad from power have not paid close enough attention to history. That would simply prolong the war, and increase the chaos in Syria, not end it.
I applaud Secretary Kerry and the Obama administration for negotiating a partial ceasefire between the Assad regime and most opposition forces. The ceasefire shows the value of American-led diplomacy, rather than escalating violence.
It is easy to use a war to remove a tyrant from power – but it is much more difficult to prevent total chaos afterward.
Just look at the cost we have paid in Iraq – a war I was proud to oppose. Just look at the chaos in Libya. It is my firm belief that the test of a great nation, with the most powerful military on earth, is not how many wars we can engage in, but how we can use our strength to resolve international conflicts in a peaceful way. Yes, the military option should always be on the table, but it should be the last resort. And the use of military force should always – always – have to pass a basic test: will it make America and our allies more safe?
The third major challenge in the region is Iran, which routinely destabilizes the Middle East and threatens the security of Israel.
Now, we all agree that Iran must not get a nuclear weapon.
Where we may disagree is how to achieve that goal. I personally supported the nuclear deal with the U.S., France, China, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and Iran because I believe it is the best hope to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
I believe we have an obligation to pursue diplomatic solutions before resorting to military intervention – and more often than not, diplomacy can achieve things that military intervention cannot. That is why I supported the sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table and allowed us to reach an agreement.
But let me tell you what I firmly believe. The bottom line is this: if successfully implemented – and I think it can be – the nuclear deal will prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And preventing Iran from getting the bomb makes the world a safer place.
Does the agreement achieve everything I would like? Of course not.
But to my mind, it is far better than the path we were on with Iran developing nuclear weapons and the potential for military intervention by the U.S. and Israel growing greater by the day.
I do not accept the idea that the “pro-Israel” position was to oppose the deal. Preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon will strengthen not only America’s security, but Israel’s securityas well. And I am not alone in that idea. While Prime Minister Netanyahu is vocally opposed to the accord, his is hardly a consensus opinion in Israel. Dozens of former security officials, including retired Army generals and chiefs of the Shin Bet and Mossad intelligence agencies support the agreement.
But let me be clear: if Iran does not live up to the agreement, we should re-impose sanctions and all options are back on the table.
Moreover, the deal does not mean we let Iran’s aggressive acts go unchecked. The world must stand united in condemningIran’s recent ballistic missile tests as well as its continued support for terrorism through groups like Hezbollah.
Going forward, I believe we need a longer-term vision for dealing with Iran that balances two important objectives.
First, we must counter the destabilizing behavior of Iran’s leaders. There is no question about that.
But, second, we must also leave the door open to more diplomacy to encourage Iranian moderates and the segments of the Iranian people – especially the younger generations – who want a better relationship with the West. While only a small step in the right direction, I was heartened by the results of the recent parliamentary elections in which Iranian voters elected moderates in what was, in part, a referendum on the nuclear deal.
I know that some say there is just no dealing with Iran – in any way at all – for the foreseeable future. After all, Iran is in a competition with Saudi Arabia and its allies for influence across the region. But a more balanced approach towards Iran that serves our national security interests should hardly be a radical idea. We have serious concerns about the nature of the Iranian government, but we have to honest enough to say that Saudi Arabia – a repressive regime in its own rite – is hardly an example of Jeffersonian democracy.
Balancing firmness with willingness to engage with diplomacy in dealing with Iran will not be easy. But it is the wisest course of action to help improve the long-term prospects of stability in the Middle East – and to keep us safe.
These are but some of the major issues where the interests of Israel intersect with those of the United States. I would address these issues and challenges as I would most issues – by having an honest discussion and by bringing people together.
There has a disturbing trend among some of the Republicans in this presidential election, and it takes the opposite approach: to divide us and pit us against each other. The Republican front-runner, Donald Trump, suggested limiting immigration according to religion and creating a national database based on religion. That not only goes against everything we stand for as a country, it would also hurt us significantly in our relations with other counties.