Bernie Sanders offered to address Aipac’s national conference via live video feed as almost every Israeli prime minister has done and many presidential candidates as well (Romney was the last in 2012). He chose not to speak live because there are a series of extremely important western primaries which may make or break his candidacy. He needed to be campaigning out west. So Aipac invented a rule that no presidential candidates are permitted to address the audience via video and rejected his offer to speak.
Instead, Sanders delivered the speech (transcript) in the most unlikeliest of places, Mormon-country: Utah. I’ve now read the speech and I have to say that I’m very pleasantly surprised. Given that I wrote last week that Bernie couldn’t possibly acquit himself well facing this conundrum, he pulled off something quite politically adept. He will not have satisfied the die-hard pro-Palestine activists like Steven Salaita. Hell, the speech doesn’t even satisfy me fully. But it’s far better than any other presidential candidate in this election cycle and probably better than any presidential candidate in the history of the country.
Among the most important achievements are simply that he mentioned Palestine at all. And he did so often:
I am here to tell the American people 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 also got to be a friend not only to Israel, but to the Palestinian people, where in Gaza unemployment today is 44 percent and we have there a poverty rate which is almost as high.
So when we talk about Israel and Palestinian areas, it is important to understand that today there is a whole lot of suffering among Palestinians and that cannot be ignored. You can’t have good policy that results in peace if you ignore one side.
Of course, you know that Barack Obama understood this as well. He may’ve hinted around the edges at holding these views. But he never said them. More importantly, he never followed up on any hopeful rhetoric he espoused with concrete action. There were attempts, but they were feeble and weren’t advanced with firmness and conviction.
Returning to Bernie’s speech, he did not mention Palestine to make demands upon Palestinians or wag his finger at them telling them what they must do if they expect anything from the world. That’s what all the other candidates, including Hillary Clinton and even Barack Obama, do. Sanders affirmed Palestinian suffering. He called for an end to the Gaza siege. Think of how radical that was–and this:
Peace will require strict adherence by both sides to the tenets of international humanitarian law. This includes Israeli ending disproportionate responses to being attacked…
This implies that Israel’s massacre of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians in multiple wars violated international law. No U.S. president or candidate has ever said or even implied that.
Also, Bernie avoided so many pitfalls into which other less adept candidates fall. He didn’t demand that Palestinians recognize “the Jewish state” of Israel. He said they must recognize Israel. Period. Of course, Palestinians already recognize Israel (since the PLO did so in 1988). So that statement is almost redundant, unless it was directed at Hamas (Bernie didn’t say).
There was no demonization of Hamas. No reference to Palestinians as terrorists.
That being said, there are portions of the speech which lapse into liberal Zionist nostalgia for an Israel that has long since receded into the distant past: the reference to our “shared values” and mutual democratic traditions and embrace of the rule of law. These are quaint notions which no longer hold true in Israel (and they’re under fire here in this country as well, but to a lesser extent). It’s almost inexcusable for a presidential candidate as smart and progressive as Sanders not to face such a reality. What we all admire about Bernie is his refusal to embrace sloganeering or empty rhetoric or cheap political tricks. He speaks his mind, unfiltered. He faces reality undaunted and unfazed. But not when it comes to Israel.
Bernie fell into a hasbara trap when he echoed the standard pro-Israel rap against Hamas: it allegedly siphoned off international humanitarian aid and used it instead to build tunnels to kill Israelis:
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.
Building tunnels is not a terribly expensive enterprise, especially compared to the cost of an Apache helicopter or F-16. I do not know where Hamas found the few millions which went to building these tunnels. But one thing is certain: when a foreign enemy attacks your home you are entitled to defend it. That means you are entitled to fight on your own home ground and attack the invading enemy. So why would Bernie attack Palestinians for defending themselves from Israeli invasion?
In the most disappointing passage, Sanders once again affirms his embrace of the two-state solution and calls for a resumption of the tried-and-failed strategy of renewed negotiations:
I firmly believe that the only prospect for peace is the successful negotiation of a two-state solution.
The first step in that road ahead is to set the stage for resuming the peace process through direct negotiations.
Progress is never made unless people are prepared to sit down and talk to each other. This is no small thing. 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. Again, this is not easy, but that is the direction we’ve got to go.
Bernie, I don’t know how many times we gotta tell ya: that horse has left the barn. Peace talks are a dead-end. Especially peace talks aimed at arriving at a two-state solution. Israel simply has no interest in it. Not just Netanyahu, who of course has no interest in it. But no Israeli Jewish party has an interest in the hard compromises necessary to secure peace. So why deceive yourself?
Though hopeful rhetoric always sounds better on the stump than the downbeat, the truth is that the U.S. cannot influence a positive outcome in the region until we are willing to stare an Israeli leader in the face and say: no more. Until a U.S. president is willing to say to the Israel lobby (that is, Aipac): no more. Not just say it, but do something about it.
That will be hard. Very hard. Perhaps impossible. But someone’s gotta break the logjam and do it. To those who call it “the impossible dream,” remember how many decades the world thought the Cold War was permanent, that Communism was the most powerful competitor of the democratic west, that the Iron Curtain seemed impregnable? How long did it take for it all to come tumbling down?
I have little doubt that this is what will happen in the Israel-Palestine conflict. We are already moving very, very slowly in that direction. It may take years. But once a certain threshold is reached, the dénouement will be relatively quick.
Bernie may not be there yet. But unlike any other presidential candidate of this or any other generation, he has the capacity to learn from his mistakes and get things right. At least I hope so.
On a related note, I simply don’t have the heart or stomach to offer an analysis of Donald Trump’s speech. But I can’t get away without mentioning the priceless tidbits about the danger Donald faced when he agreed to accept the dangerous honor of being Grand Marshall of New York’s Israel Day parade. Apparently, there was a Hezbollah hit on him that somehow missed its mark. The would-be assassins took the D train instead of the L and by the time they got there Donald had retired to Tavern on the Green or his rooftop aerie at Trump Tower.
The second piece of pricelessness was Donald’s touting of his daughter Ivanka’s new-found religion, Orthodox Judaism, and the “beautiful Jewish baby” she carried in her Jewish tummy. Did I say shameless pandering? But half the audience was composed of Jewish bubbehs and zaydehs. They ate it up I’m sure.
But seriously, no media outlet has yet noted that one of the foreign policy brain trust Trump has appointed includes Walid Phares. Phares’ main claim to fame was as a commander of Phalangist death squads during the Lebanese civil war. He’s managed in the intervening decades to rebrand himself as a serious Middle East analyst. By “serious,” that means that as a Lebanese Christian he only hates Muslims, but no longer puts bullets in their brains.
Donald’s not the first GOP presidential candidate to invite Phares to offer his foreign policy “insights.” He served a similar role for Mitt Romney.
Phares joins Frank Gaffney as two of the strangest Islamophobe foreign policy advisors in this campaign. Gaffney has joined Ted Cruz’ team as chief Muslim-hater. A small note about a Cruz “Gaff” (pardon the expression) in his Aipac talk. In deriding Trump for using the term “Palestine,” Cruz said that everyone knows “Palestine hasn’t existed since 1948.” Um, no, Ted. You couldn’t even read your own hasbara cue cards. Every hasbarist worth his salt knows there never has been a Palestine. Let’s get our arguments straight!
Probably, Cruz (or whoever the dolt was who wrote his speech) was thinking of the British Mandate, also known as Mandatory Palestine. That did end with the British withdrawal in 1948.
Regarding odd foreign policy advisors, Hillary’s got one of her own: a Hollywood-Wall Street billionaire who ripped off a Japanese anime show and turned it in the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. That would be Haim Saban. Saban is widely believed to be a Mossad asset, as I’ve reported here numerous times.