Bernie Sanders Smears Israel

Column: The Vermont senator is dangerously ignorant of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders / AP
April 8, 2016

Can he take a Mulligan? Bernie Sanders’ interview with the editorial board of the New York Daily News revealed a candidate more interested in platitudes and dreams than in specifics and realities. He couldn’t even explain how his signature policy—breaking up the big banks—would work. His campaign might as well have sent Larry David in his place. The comic is better informed.

The entire transcript is embarrassing. But when the subject turned to the Middle East, Sanders crossed the line that separates the daft from the dangerous. He not only smeared the Jewish State, he betrayed an ignorance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would, if he were president, lead to the loss of Jewish and Arab lives. Naiveté is fine for But it is absolutely unacceptable for the Oval Office.

The subject was Israel’s 2014 war with Gaza. Sanders said Israel’s retaliation for Hamas’ shelling of civilian population centers was disproportionate. "Anybody help me out here," he said, "because I don’t remember the figures, but my recollection is over 10,000 innocent people were killed in Gaza. Does that sound right?"

No Bernie it doesn’t. A civilian death toll of more than 10,000 sounds the very opposite of right—it sounds like a gross exaggeration, a calumny, like disinformation coming from Marx knows where. Certainly not from the speech on the Middle East that Sanders delivered last month, where he criticized "Israeli counter attacks that killed nearly 1,500 civilians and wounded thousands more."

This lower figure comes from the United Nations, which makes it just as suspect. Civilian deaths are reported by the local authorities, which in Gaza’s case are members of a terrorist organization devoted to the end of the Zionist enterprise who have no problem building military headquarters in the basements of hospitals, hiding weapons in schools, attacking from civilian areas, refusing ceasefire after ceasefire, and starting the war in the first place. I’d take their claims with a grain of salt.

Sanders is ignorant of more than just the 2014 war. Not only does he want the Israeli government to halt settlement activity. He wants Israel to pull "back settlements in the West Bank, just as Israel did in Gaza." When the Daily News asked him merely to "describe the pullback that you have in mind," the senator flinched. He dodged the question. He invoked Palestinian suffering for which Israel, not Palestinian elites and institutions, presumably is to blame. And finally, after the paper would not stop pressing him on the issue, Sanders said, "Well, again, you’re asking me a very fair question, and if I had some paper in front of me, I would give you a better answer." Since the authors of the paper most likely would be an employee of J Street or James Zogby, I sincerely doubt that. Points for honesty though.

"It's quite clear that Bernie Sanders has a weakness—by the way, a weakness shared by Donald Trump on the Republican side," said the Democrats' man in Israel, "that his forte is domestic and not international affairs." You're telling me. And this is supposed to be an apology for Sanders—that we should ignore his glaring weakness because, well, he's occupied by other things and by the way Donald Trump has the same problem. If you share Donald Trump's problems, you shouldn't be president. I suspect not a few voters in the New York Democratic primary might agree.

So Sanders’ policy is clueless. But it is also a security risk. Why? Not only because he plainly hasn’t thought enough about these issues to be seriously prepared for making the judgments necessary as commander-in-chief. But also because his view of the conflict is so fanciful, so heavily weighted toward the Palestinian narrative of grievance and victimization, that a Sanders presidency would repeat all of the deadly mistakes of the last six years.

We’ve tried calling for settlement freezes, for direct negotiations, for proportionality, and for evenhandedness while ignoring Palestinian incitement, Palestinian terror, Palestinian corruption, Palestinian incompetence in the provision of even the most basic public services. What has that gotten us? Hamas remains in Gaza as knife-wielding terrorists murder wantonly in Jerusalem. Some legacy.

It's one thing for Sanders to call for "ending the economic blockade of Gaza." It is another to recognize why, exactly, the blockade is in place. Does he think Bibi Netanyahu just dreamed it up one day on a lark? The blockade isn’t there to punish Palestinian children. It’s there to prevent Turkey and Iran from restocking the Hamas war machine. The blockade is but a symptom of the problem of Hamas’ revisionism, of its genocidal ambitions. Israel abandoned Gaza a decade ago, yet Hamas’ war continues. Would it overly bother Bernie Sanders to ask why?

What the Daily News interview revealed was that Sanders is nothing more than a politician who excels at the outside game of earned media, of purist stances boldly announced in the most moralistic terms, of professional indignation at whichever injustices most upset the subscribers to The Nation on a given week. He hasn’t considered matters of foreign and defense and diplomatic policy as deeply as he might because, up till now, he hasn’t needed to. His "political revolution" works the same magic as Donald Trump’s wall: It makes all the world’s problems disappear.

And, like Trump, when someone has the gumption actually to ask Sanders about details, to point out the logical consequences of his ideas, he filibusters, gets angry, shifts direction. "You’re asking me now to make not only decisions for the Israeli government," he told the editorial board at one point, "but for the Israeli military, and I don’t quite think I’m qualified to make decisions."

Here, at last, Bernie Sanders got something right.