Yesterday, all five presidential candidates from both parties gave speeches to AIPAC, the leading Israeli lobbying group in the U.S. But only four of them gave their speeches in Washington, D.C. The fifth, Bernie Sanders, gave his speech to an audience in Utah, where it barely received any coverage at all.
In what was an even-handed criticism of both the Israeli and Palestinian governments, Sanders — who, remember, is the first Jewish presidential candidate to win a state primary — pushed a common sense resolution to the conflict that acknowledged grievances on either side, by addressing both Israeli security concerns and socioeconomic improvement for Palestinians. “Peace has to mean security for every Israeli from violence and terrorism,” he said. “But peace also means security for every Palestinian. It means achieving self-determination, civil rights, and economic well-being for the Palestinian people.”
Speaking at a high school in Salt Lake City, Sanders laid out his foreign policy vision for the region should he win the presidency. On top of addressing the ongoing conflict and breakdown in negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, he also addressed ISIS and the need for Arab involvement in that fight.
Sanders framed his speech as needed criticism from a “long term” friend of Israel. “Our disagreements will come and go, and we must weather them constructively,” he said. “But it is important among friends to be honest and truthful about differences that we may have.”
Sanders has often occupied that role. As a young man, he lived on a kibbutz in Israel during the 1960s, which he pointed out in his speech. But he’s not given Israel the political carte blanche that most senators have.
During the 2014 war in Gaza, he was one of 21 senators who did not co-sponsor a Senate resolution expressing support for Israel during the war. Then, in February 2015, he was the first senator to publicly announce he was skipping Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to both houses of Congress.
Sanders saw it as an attempt to undermine President Barack Obama, who wasn’t notified of Netanyahu’s plan to speak in front of Congress until it appeared in the news. He was followed by 55 other Democratic congressmen, who did the same.
Sanders had offered to address AIPAC’s audience via video conference, but conference organizers said all presidential candidates had to be physically present, despite a video call from Netanyahu. The Vermont senator said he couldn’t attend because he was campaigning in the western states, where today’s primaries are due to take place.
But it’s possible that the lobbying group was unhappy with Sanders’s criticisms of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli actions during the 2014 summer war in Gaza, and his general disconnect from Israel as an American political issue. A June 2015 article by The Jewish Daily Forward interviewed an AIPAC official, who said, “Sanders does not sign any AIPAC-backed letters.”
Sanders has been critical of Israel’s use of disproportionate force during its wars in Gaza and the high civilian death tolls that usually result. “I – along with many supporters of Israel – spoke out strongly against the Israeli counter attacks that killed nearly 1,500 civilians and wounded thousands more. I condemned the bombing of hospitals, schools and refugee camps,” he said during his speech. None of the other presidential candidates who address AIPAC offered a similar criticism of Israel.
His speech was a far cry from the one given by his rival Hillary Clinton, who pointed to her decades of working with Israeli governments as proof that she was an unshakeable ally of Israel and had the years of real experience, rather than idealism, that Sanders lacked. Clinton promised to support Israel’s “qualitative military edge” over its regional neighbors, invite Israeli leaders to the White House, and oppose the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that has promoted a South African-style boycott of Israeli goods until it stops its occupation of Palestinian land.
Photo: Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders holds a town hall event at the Navajo Nation casino in Flagstaff, Arizona March 17, 2016. REUTERS/Nancy Wiechec