It’s finally happened: the issue of Palestinian human rights came up in the Democratic debate tonight on national television, and Bernie Sanders repeatedly criticized Hillary Clinton — for siding with Israel singlehandedly, for her support of Benjamin Netanyahu and her indifference to the plight of Palestinians.
On the same night that he caved in to rightwing fools and suspended his Jewish outreach director over her criticisms of Benjamin Netanyahu, Senator Sanders stood up for Palestinians and against Netanyahu to cheers from the Brooklyn crowd.
Toward the end of a bruising debate, the two Democratic candidates tangled over Israel and Palestine for more than six minutes, beginning when Wolf Blitzer asked Sanders if he stood by his criticism of Israel for “disproportionate” attacks on Gaza.
Sanders said he had spent many months in Israel as a kid and has family in Israel, and the country has a right to live in peace and security.
But what you just read — I do believe that. Israel was subjected to terrorist attacks, has every right to destroy terrorists. But we had in the Gaza are, not a very large area, some 10,000 civilians who were wounded and some 1500 who were killed… Was that a disproportionate attack? The answer is I believe it was.
And let me say something else. As somebody who is 100 percent pro Israel, in the long run, and this is not going to be easy, if we are ever going to bring peace to that region that has seen so much hatred and so much war, we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity. . . One has got to say that right now in Gaza unemployment is somewhere around 40 percent. You got a lot of that area continues — it hasn’t been rebuilt, decimated. Housing decimated, health care decimated, schools decimated. I believe the United States and the rest of the world has got to work together to help the Palestinian people. That does not make me anti-Israel. That paves the way, I think, to an approach that works in the Middle East.
Clinton responded with a staunch defense of Israel, repeating talking points straight out of the Netanyahu government and its lobby here:
They do not seek this kind of attacks. They do not invite rockets raining down on their towns and villages. They do not believe that there should be a constant incitement by Hamas, aided and abetted by Iran against Israel. And so when it came time after they had taken the incoming rockets, taken the assaults and ambushes on their soldiers, and they called and told me . . . they were getting ready to have to invade Gaza again because they couldn’t find anyone to talk to to tell them to stop it. . . I don’t know how you run a country if you are under constant threat. .
Here was the extent of Clinton’s criticism of Israel:
That doesn’t mean that you don’t take appropriate precautions, and there’s always second guessing when you have a war.
If you blinked, you missed that.
You evaded the question, the question is not does Israel have a right to respond, not does Israel have a right to go after terrorists… Was their response disproportionate? I believe that it was. You haven’t answered that.
There were audible boos from the audience as Clinton said:
Even the most independent analyst will say that the way that Hamas places its weapons, the way that it often has its fighters in civilian garb, it is terrible… Remember Israel left Gaza. . . they turned the keys over to the Palestinian people. And what happened? Hamas took over. . . We have a terrorist haven that is having more and more rockets shipped in from Iran and elsewhere.
Sanders then criticized Clinton sharply for the pandering speech she gave to the Israel lobby group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC, last month:
I read Secretary Clinton’s speech before AIPAC, I heard virtually no discussion at all about the needs of the Palestinian people, almost none in that speech. Here is the issue.
Of course Israel has a right to defend itself, but long term there will never be peace in that region, unless the Untied States plays a role, an evenhanded role in trying to bring people together and recognizing the serious problems that exist among the Palestinian people. That is what I believe the world wants us to do and that is the kind of leadership that we have got to exercise.
“Describing the problem is a lot easier than trying to solve it,” Clinton responded. She said she had held the last three meetings between the Palestinians and Israel aimed at a peace agreement.
Sanders gave a one-line answer:
There comes a time when if we pursue justice and peace we are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all of the time.
Clinton appeared defensive for once about her alignment with the rightwing leader: “I have spoken about and written at some length about very candid conversations I’ve had with him. No one is saying that any leader is always right.”
The issue, she said, is that “There is a terrorist group embedded in Gaza that does not want” Israel to exist.
Sanders hit back:
You gave a major speech to AIPAC, which obviously deals with the middle east crisis, and you barely mentioned the Palestinians. Again it is a complicated issue and God knows that for decades presidents including President Clinton and others, Jimmy Carter and others have tried to do the right thing. All that I am saying is that we cannot continue to be one sided, there are two sides to the issue.
Finally support for Israel is getting politicized in the Democratic Party. Let’s hope this is the beginning of an extended discussion.
Jake Tapper just said it was a historic moment, of a candidate criticizing Israel at last.
Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace says:
It was heartening to hear the beginning of a much needed conversation about Israel’s disproportionate use of force against Palestinians in Gaza during the Democratic debate tonight. Today showed that the movement for Palestinian rights is shifting the discourse at the highest political levels. However, there is still a long way to go before we see our political leaders take courageous steps not just to recognize the humanity of Palestinians but to take action to secure their rights.