By Ray Hanania
For years, pro-Palestinian activists have demanded that the US make its massive foreign aid to Israel conditional on Tel Aviv’s efforts to make peace with the Palestinians. This week, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the American senator from the state of Vermont, put that issue front and center during an appearance at a conference organized by J Street, the moderate pro-Israel political advocacy group that supports a two-state solution and engages in active dialogue with much of Palestine’s leadership.
“I believe absolutely not only in the right of Israel to exist but the right to exist in peace and security,” Sanders saidon Monday. “But what I also believe is the Palestinian people have a right to live in peace and security as well… And it is not anti-Semitism to say that the (Benjamin) Netanyahu government has been racist. That is a fact.”
Sanders said Israel must sit down with the Palestinians and negotiate peace. And, in a direct assault on Israel’s current extremist government, he said the $3.8 billion of aid the US gives to Israel annually should be made conditional on it respecting human rights and democracy.
“At a time when we spend I think it is $3.8 billion in military aid, we have a right to say to the Israeli government, that the United States of America, and our taxpayers and our people believe in human rights. We believe in democracy. We will not accept authoritarianism or racism and we demand that the Israel government sit down with the Palestinian people and negotiate an agreement that works for all parties,” Sanders said. “$3.8 billion is a lot of money, and we cannot give it carte blanche to the Israeli government, or for that matter to any government at all. We have a right to demand respect for human rights and democracy.”
But Sanders did not stop there. He said that Israel needs “a radical intercession in Gaza to allow for economic development, a better environment and to give people hope there.” He added: “What is going on in Gaza right now, for example, is absolutely inhumane. It is unacceptable. It is unsustainable.”
Sanders was one of seven Democratic contenders for president who addressed the J Street conference, either in person or by video link. All of the candidates spoke in favor of peace, but Sanders was the most explicit and clear in supporting Palestinian rights and holding Israel’s government accountable for its policies that have undermined the peace process.
Both South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren also suggested leveraging US aid to push Israel toward peace with the Palestinians, but not in explicit terms. Buttigieg said that, if Israel moved ahead with plans to annex the Jordan Valley, as extremist Prime Minister Netanyahu has said, then he would re-examine US foreign aid to Israel. “We have a responsibility… to ensure that US taxpayer support for Israel does not get turned into taxpayer support for a move like annexation,” he said.
By speaking out the way he is, Sanders is helping to redefine more accurately the tenor of the debate over Israel’s policies. Many politicians and activists who have challenged Israeli policies or criticized the actions of the Israeli government have been denounced as being “anti-Semitic.” Sanders, however, is Jewish. “I think being Jewish may be helpful in that regard. It is going to be very hard for anybody to call me, whose father’s family was wiped out by Hitler and who spent time in Israel, an anti-Semite,” Sanders said.
Far too many Palestinians, especially those active in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, are critical not only of Netanyahu’s government and other extremist groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, but also J Street. Despite this, several Palestinians spoke at the J Street conference, including diplomat Saeb Erekat and Knesset member Ayman Odeh.
What J Street, Sanders and the Palestinians who attended this week’s convention are doing is significantly altering the substance of the debate that is taking place in America over Israel’s policies. With the uncertainty caused by Netanyahu’s twice-failed attempt to win another election, there can be no better time to confront and change Israel’s anti-peace policies than now.
It is very possible that a new, more moderate political party led by Benny Gantz will soon take over in Israel. While many note that Gantz is not moderate enough, the fact is that, despite his rhetoric, he is moving away from Netanyahu’s extremism to a more moderate agenda.
If Sanders were to be elected president in 2020, we would be assured of a substantive change in US foreign policy toward Israel. His approach would be more action than empty rhetoric, which was the case during the Obama administration.
But, even if Sanders does not win, his stubborn determination to inject the need for “justice” into the Israel-Palestine conflict might result in a seismic change in the political narrative of how American politicians address Israel. Win or lose in 2020, Sanders will have contributed significantly to redefining the debate over Israel and Palestine to one that is more accurate, realistic and fair.